Tragic last known photo of four victims of medical Learjet crash: Two pilots had to be identified by their fingerprints after private plane disintegrated on impact in California
All four victims of the medical plane crash in California have now been identified as two pilots and two flight nurses who were killed on Monday while returning from transporting a patient.
The San Diego Medical Examiner’s Office said they had to use ‘special fingerprinting techniques’ to identify the pilots of the Learjet 35A as Julian Jorge Bugaj, 67, and Douglas James Grande, 45.
The two flight nurses who died in the crash were identified earlier this week by professional associations as Tina Ward and Laurie Gentz.
The Medical Examiner’s Office has yet to formally name Ward and Gentz as victims of the crash, saying that one of the women could be identified through dental records by the end of this week, while the other requiring DNA testing that could take several months.
The Learjet 35A, operated by Aeromedevac Air Ambulance, smashed into a power line before exploding on a street in El Cajon, leaving no survivors on the plane.
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All four victims of Monday’s medical airplane crash in California have been identified as (clockwise) nurse Tina Ward, pilot Julian Bugaj, nurse Laurie Gentz and pilot Douglas Grande
Ward was the wife of retired Oceanside Fire Chief Joe Ward, according to an Instagram post from the Oceanside Firefighters Association
Firefighters work to put out flames on the ground after a small jet plane crashed in unincorporated area in a town about 17 miles east of San Diego
The company posted a statement on its website on Wednesday, addressing the deadly crash.
‘It is with great sadness that we must share the devastating loss of our colleagues at Aeromedevac Air Ambulance on December 27, 2021. The loss of our friends has left us an indescribable void. To both us and their families they are unsung heroes, dedicating their lives to caring for others in need throughout our community.
‘Our priority now is to support the well-being of the families of all our crew members. We are a close-knit air ambulance program that is united by our missions to care for our patients. Our team’s commitment to helping others has always been inspiring.
‘We are honored and blessed to have worked with the crew members that we have lost, and we extend our heartfelt condolences to their families.’
The Oceanside Firefighters Association named Ward as one of the victims of the crash, revealing in an Instagram post Tuesday that she was the wife of a recently retired local fire chief, Joe Ward.
‘It is with heavy hearts that the Oceanside Fire Department and their fire family would like to extend our deepest condolences to our recently retired Chief Ward, his family, and all family and friends of the Aeromedevac flight crew N880Z,’ the post read.
Bugaj, 67, was identified by the San Jose Medical Examiner’s Office through special fingerprinting techniques. The pilot leaves behind a wife, children and grandchildren
Bugaj was described by relatives as an outstanding family man and grandfather, pictured above with tow of his grandchildren
Bugaj (right) was said to be a lifelong aviation enthusiast who joined the medical transport company a few years ago
‘Chief Ward’s wife Tina, was a flight nurse on board of the aircraft that crashed last night in El Cajon. We are shocked and saddened by this devastating news and are keeping you all in our thoughts and prayers during this difficult time.’
Joe and Tina Ward had been married for more than a decade and had three daughters together.
Meanwhile, the International Association of EMTs and Paramedics on Tuesday identified one of the other victims of the plane crash as Laurie Gentz, a nurse with more than 30 years of experience who also served as president of her local union.
‘The IAEP extends sincere condolences for the devastating and sudden loss of Local 162 President Laurie Gentz, her fellow passengers and the Learjet flight crew early this morning,’ the Facebook post read. ‘President Gentz will be greatly missed by all who knew her and all who benefit from her selfless contributions to organized labor in the Greater San Diego area.’
The post was accompanied by an undated selfie showing Gentz, Ward, Bugaj and Grande posing in front of the doomed Learjet 35A with the tail number N880Z.
Ward was a veteran health care worker who previously worked as an emergency room nurse at Palomar Pomerado Health. She is pictured with husband Joe, right
Joe and Tina Ward are pictured with their three daughter in this photo the mom posted on Facebook a day before her death
According to CBS8, the medevac plane transported a patient from Arizona to Orange County, California, Monday and was returning to Gillespie Field when it went down.
The San Diego County Medical Examiner has yet to officially identify any of the victims pending notification of next of kin.
According to her Facebook page, Tina Ward previously worked as an emergency room nurse at Palomar Pomerado Health.
Laurie Gentz’s LinkedIn profile reveals that she only joined Aeromedevac Air Ambulance as a part-time flight nurse in February.
She also worked as a critical care transport registered nurse at Rural Metro for nearly a decade. She leaves behind her husband and three pet boxers.
Laurie Gentz was a transport nurse with more than 30 years of experience. She had only joined Aeromedevac Air Ambulance as a part-time employee in February
‘I have 30+ years of experience in the field of Nursing, and have spent over 2 and a half decades doing Critical Care Transport both on the ground and in the air,’ Gentz wrote in the description.
Douglas Grande had worked at Aeromedevac Air Ambulance for less than three years, serving as a first officer and captain, according to his LinkedIn page. Prior to that, he worked for 17 years at an aviation manufacturing company.
Julian Bugaj, who went by his middle name, Jorge, was a lifelong aviation enthusiast and a certified flight instructor who for the last few years had piloted planes for Aeromedevac, transporting patients and transplant organs, according to the description of a GoFundMe campaign that was launched by his daughter-in-law on Wednesday.
‘He is truly a hero in what he did and loved every second of it,’ wrote Blanca Olmstead. ‘Aside from being an actual life saver, he was an amazing provider for his family.’
Bugaj is survived by his wife, Alexis, their grown children and several grandchildren.
The pilot’s daughter, Becky Adkins. posted a moving tribute to her late father on Facebook, writing: ‘Jorge Bugaj was truly the greatest man i’ve ever know… he was the most generous, the kindest and the happiest and most positive person always! Jorge was a great father, an amazing husband.. every woman should be as lucky to have a husband like Jorge! and he was by far the best Grandpa ever …’
Friends and co-workers of Ward and Gentz also have been posting messages on Facebook expressing their grief.
‘My heart is heavy tonight,’ wrote Ryan McBride. ‘I lost some amazing coworkers with such an amazing company to work for…. The nicest crew to fly with! It’s because of ALL of you I gained confidence and began to love flying while performing my job as a flight paramedic while assisting Tina, Laurie and all of the other amazing nurses we have with us! While feeling so safe in the air!’
Officials with the Federal Aviation Administration said the Learjet plane was carrying four people who had taken off from Orange County.
The National Transportation Safety Board said it was investigating the crash. A final report, including the probable cause, will likely take 12 to 24 months, the board said.
Doorbell camera footage shows the Learjet 35A hurtling towards the ground before a flash of light erupts across the clouded sky as it explodes in El Cajon, California.
Luggage is removed from the scene as emergency teams worked to identify the victims on Monday night
This map shows the route of the doomed Learjet plane that crashed on its way to Gillespie Field in El Cajon, California
The Learjet 35A, similar to the one pictured above, was operated by Med Jet, an air ambulance company
Fire and smoke are seen rising above a neighborhood in El Cajon, California, on Monday night following the private plane crash
The jet, flying out of John Wayne Airport in Orange County, struck power lines before crashing in the area of Pepper Drive and North 2nd Street, at around 7.15pm Monday.
National Weather Service data described sky conditions at Gillespie as ‘fog/mist’ at 6.55pm.
Radio communications between the jet and the airfield recorded by LiveATC.net indicated that trouble happened suddenly.
The pilot canceled an instrument flight rules approach to Runway 27 and requested a switch to Runway 17 using visual flight rules.
After the switch was granted and new instructions were given, the pilot asked that the field lights be turned up and was told they were already at 100%.
But in that moment something goes awry.
‘Oh, s***! Oh, s***! Oh, s***! No!’ the pilot is heard screaming, following by a loud noise and then silence.
Footage showed the smoldering wreckage lying in the middle of a road, most of it destroyed, with parts of the jet, including the landing gear, strewn across the street.
The crash also appeared to have caused a car to erupt in flames outside a house.
No fatalities or injuries were reported on the ground, however about 2,500 people were left without power by the fallen power line.
‘There is very little left of the aircraft,’ Fire Chief Don Butz said. ‘We weren’t able to find any survivors.’
Footage from a doorbell camera shows the moment the plane hurtles towards the ground before a flash erupts across the clouded night sky in El Cajon, California
A blast lights up the night sky over El Cajon following the plane crash seen on a Nest camera
A cloud of smoke rising from the scene of the crash that killed everyone on board the plane
Parts of the jet are seen strewn across the road after it exploded in the residential neighborhood last night
Several fire and police units worked to get the blaze under control by about 9 p.m. local time in El Cajon, California
San Diego Sheriff’s Lt. Mike Krugh told The San Diego Union Tribune the jet smashed into a power line and exploded on the ground shortly after.
Around six San Diego Gas & Electric trucks were in the area working to get power restored amid constant rainfall.
Shortly before midnight, power was restored to most customers, however around 350 people remained without.
The Sheriff’s Department said local volunteers from the American Red Cross would visit those people still without power in the morning to check on them.
At around 9pm, police said the burning wreckage had been extinguished.
Around an hour later, two chaplains arrived at the scene.
Lakeside resident Suzie Mercadante was out walking the dogs at around 7.15pm when she saw the jet plummeting to the ground.
She told the Tribune how she saw ‘a blue streak and then a giant big orange ball,’ then ‘the blackest smoke just billowing out.’
Thomas O’Brien who lives just a few blocks away from where the plane exploded onto the road said he was sitting on the couch when he heard the jet’s turbines screaming across the night sky.
He said that he used to hearing planes because they live near the runway at Gillespie Field, but described the sound as incredibly loud.
‘It was 10 times louder than normal,’ O’Brien told the Tribune. ‘My walls started shaking, like there was an earthquake. I froze. Honestly, I thought it was about to hit us.’
O’Brien said he saw the jet explode from his back window and the blast reflecting off his pool.
A few beats later, the booming sound of the explosion hit him and then his house lost power.
Fire and smoke could be seen in video provided by a local resident. A Facebook livestream showed a car on fire in front of a house and debris in the street
No one on the ground was injured or hurt. Rainy conditions and the darkness have kept investigators from finding the full extent of the damage
Resident Lauren Watling also described the plane as ‘really, really, loud’ as it approached and that after the crash all she could see was ‘fire and smoke’.
She told NBC7: ‘We were outside and basically, we heard the plane getting closer.
‘Normally they get loud because we live right by the airport, but it got really, really loud and all of the sudden, we think it could’ve hit our power lines above our house, but we just saw bright blue and orange flashing lights and we heard the electricity running.
‘And then after that, we heard the plane actually crash. We ran out immediately and there was a ton of smoke everywhere.’
The cause of the crash has yet to be determined as authorities are still investigating. NTSB will produce a preliminary report in several weeks.