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‘You appear to be descending again sir,’ pilot told before deadly Santee crash

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Nicholas McVicker
A UPS truck was damaged after plane crashed in Santee, Calif. Oct. 11, 2021.

UPDATE: 2:48 p.m., Tuesday, Oct. 12, 2021

Shortly before the twin-engine Cessna 340A crashed into a Santee neighborhood Monday, killing two people, the pilot was told by the control tower he was flying too low.

In an audio recording obtained by KPBS, Gillespie Field’s control tower told the pilot he was veering off course.

“Two-two-golf, looks like you’re drifting right off course, are you correcting?” the control tower said, referring to the last three digits of the plane’s registry number, N72022G.

“Correcting, two-two golf,” said the pilot, presumed to be Dr. Sugata Das, the owner of the plane.

Minutes later, the tower told the pilot he was flying too low and to climb immediately.

“Maintain 3,000, low altitude alert,” the tower said.

“Climbing, two-two-golf,” Das responded.

After some more routine back-and-forth between radio traffic control, the tower told the pilot to “climb the plane immediately.”

“Expedite climb, please,” the tower said.

After not getting a response from Das, the radio traffic controller told him to level off and climb when he can. Again, no response from the pilot. The control tower made one more attempt to contact Das.

“You appear to be descending again sir,” the radio traffic controller said. “Are you losing altitude?”

The Cessna 340A crashed shortly afterward at the intersection of Greencastle and Jeremy streets in Santee around 12:15 p.m. The aircraft was en route from Yuma, Arizona, to Montgomery-Gibbs Executive Airport in San Diego, according to county officials and the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA).

RELATED: 2 killed, 2 injured in small plane crash near Santana High School in Santee

At least two people were killed and several others injured. The plane crashed into two homes on Jeremy and Greencastle streets. Both houses were completely gutted.

Yuma Regional Medical Center confirmed that its cardiologist Dr. Das died in the accident after his plane crashed.

“With tremendous sadness, Yuma Regional Medical Center (YRMC) shares our heartfelt condolences following the tragic death of cardiologist and friend, Dr. Sugata Das who died in a plane crash yesterday,” the company said in a press release.

“Our community has lost an exceptional physician, colleague and friend, a man who dedicated his life and career to caring for patients,” said Dr. Bharat Magu, Chief Medical Officer at YRMC. “Dr. Das was an outstanding cardiologist and dedicated family man. He was a highly disciplined physician who thrived on each opportunity to improve care for heart patients.”

Authorities have not officially identified any of the victims in the crash.

The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) is the agency in charge of investigating the crash. It is on site Tuesday documenting the accident.“Part of the investigation will be to request radar data, weather information, air traffic control communication, airplane maintenance records and the pilot’s medical records,” NTSB said in a statement to KPBS. “NTSB investigators will look at the human, machine and environment as the outline of the investigation.”

A preliminary report from the agency is expected to be published 15 days after the accident.

It was unclear how many occupants were aboard the six-seat aircraft when it plunged to the ground.

Neighbors helped a man and woman evacuate from one of the damaged homes. Neighbors said they heard a loud boom at the time of the crash.

“I ran outside and I heard my neighbors yelled, ‘A plane just crashed,’ and I turned and looked and saw all the smoke over here so I immediately took off running,” said Michael Keeley, who helped evacuate the woman from the burning home. “I came up this street and saw the front of the house was fully engulfed in flames but the side window was not. So me and six and seven other neighbors went to that window, called out, ‘Is there anyone in here?’ And she said, ‘My puppy, my puppy. What just happened?’”

The woman was pulled out of the window. Her hair was singed and she had burns on her face and arms. Her husband was rescued from the backyard. Both were taken to UCSD Medical Center for burn treatment.

No one was inside the other home at the time.

A UPS delivery truck in front of the homes was also destroyed. UPS confirmed to KPBS News its driver Steve Krueger was one of the two people killed.

"We are heartbroken by the loss of our driver Steve Krueger, and extend our deepest condolences to his family and friends,” the company said in a statement to KPBS. “Those who knew Steve said he took pride in his work, and his positive attitude and joyful laugh made the hardest days a little lighter. Steve was held in high regard and will be greatly missed.”

UPS said it is coordinating a moment of silence Tuesday at 12:14 p.m. to pay respects to Krueger and his family.

Reports from the scene indicated that part of the plane ended up in one of the heavily damaged homes, while the engine landed in another. The crash created a debris field that covered much of a city block, authorities said.

The Red Cross established an evacuation center at Cameron Family YMCA on Riverwalk Drive in Santee for residents forced from their homes due to the crash.