salvage crew today is expected to lift the remains of a small plane that crashed into a massive raw sewage tank in Gilroy so that coroner's officials can remove the three bodies inside the crumpled aircraft.
The plane appeared to fall from the sky in a tailspin Monday afternoon, witnesses and authorities said, but efforts to determine the cause of the crash and confirm who was onboard have been hampered by the bizarre crash site at the South County Regional Wastewater Authority treatment plant.
Vicki Gonzales, office manager of Nice Air flight school in San Jose, said one of the school's flight instructors and two students, all Japanese nationals, died in the crash.
Gonzales identified the instructor as Shoki Haraguchi and the two students as Yoshiyuki Kato and Yasushi Miyata. Kato and Miyata were in the country to take a pilot course from Nice Air, company operations director Hiro Takai said.
School officials don't know who was piloting the plane when it went down, Gonzales said.
The United States -- and particularly mild climate states like California, Arizona and Texas -- is a destination for international flight students because it offers several small-plane manufacturers, a relatively large general aviation community and cheaper aviation fuel, parts and hangar fees, Takai said.
Gilroy police Sgt. Kurt Svardal said officials are considering using a crane or helicopter to remove the plane. Once it's on the ground, the bodies will be retrieved, and autopsies will be performed to determine the cause of death.
On Tuesday, workers drained raw sewage from the 600,000-gallon tank to expose the plane, which had one wing sheared completely off, apparently from hitting a concrete divider within the tank.
After the plane was exposed at the bottom of the 20-foot tank, the surface was deemed too slippery and dangerous to safely remove the bodies, Svardal said.
"They have to figure out how to get it out of there," he said.
Gilroy resident John Dryden, 43, said he was outside a friend's house on Monday when he looked up and saw the plane plummeting from the sky at about 4 p.m.
"It was vertically straight, swirling maybe five, six, times, then it disappeared out of our sight," Dryden said. "It was a matter of seconds ... not even 10 seconds, and it was out of my sight. There was no smoke, no sound, nothing -- it just went straight down."
He called 911, then drove over to the area with his friend but couldn't find anything, he said.
The twin-engine plane, a Beechcraft Travel Air, had departed the Reid-Hillview Airport in San Jose at 1 p.m. Monday and about three hours later crashed at the treatment plant, located in south Gilroy south of Highway 152.
There are no airfields or landing strips near the sewage treatment plant, Gilroy authorities said.
The flight school reported the craft missing after it failed to return to the airport as scheduled at 5 p.m.
Local authorities, who had received the 911 calls from several witnesses, began searching and eventually spotted a portion of the plane from a helicopter, Svardal said.
Workers at the treatment plant had heard a crash but could not see the plane over the raised walls of the sewage tank, Svardal said.
Officials found a flight log and a Japanese passport near the wreckage.