About 9:35 a.m., the twin-engine Cessna 310 crashed on the southbound 405, just shy of the runway. Two people were on board at the time, John Wayne Airport Director Barry Rondinella said at an early afternoon news conference.
The occupants, a man and woman in their late 50s to early 60s, were removed from the fiery wreckage by an off-duty firefighter from Avalon on Catalina Island; both have been hospitalized with traumatic injuries, according to Orange County Fire Authority Capt. Larry Kurtz.
“They were designated traumas due the mechanism of injury from the impact of the plane on the freeway," Kurtz said.
Both patients "had vitals" when they were removed from the plane, he said.
Only the plane's occupants were injured despite multiple vehicles being struck by the plane or its wreckage, Kurtz said.
“The fact that a plane can land – crash land – on the 405 southbound with only striking one vehicle is very extraordinary," he said. “Any time you have a plane that crashes onto a freeway, the potential for great loss of life and great injury exists. It was extraordinary that all the issues we had were the passengers of the aircraft.”
The plane hit the freeway's center divider and caught fire before colliding into the right wall on the southbound side, according to California Highway Patrol Cmdr. Ryan Shackelford. One vehicle was struck by the plane's landing gear on the northbound side.
Video recorded from a vehicle on the freeway showed black smoke billowing from the wreckage, with flames rising in the area of the center divider. Debris was all over the freeway, and bystanders could be seen stopping to help two people, at least one of whom was lying on the freeway pavement.
Orange County fire crews, aided by personnel from John Wayne Airport, used a foam system to put out the fire, essentially lobbing the foam over a fence and onto freeway lanes, according to Kurtz. He noted jet fuel is very volatile, creating a potentially "explosive situation."
Nearly 40 firefighters responded, he said.
It's unclear what caused the plane to crash. The Federal Aviation Administration and National Transportation Safety Board will be investigating.
A CHP Multidisciplinary Accident Investigation Team was also sent to the freeway to diagram the scene.
A preliminary statement from an FAA spokesman indicated the plane "crashed under unknown circumstances" short of Runway 20R as the aircraft was inbound to John Wayne Airport. The plane had taken off from John Wayne, declared an emergency shortly thereafter and was trying to return when the crash occurred.
In an online recording of air traffic control radio communications, the pilot can be heard crying "Mayday, Mayday," explaining that he is trying to get more altitude and had "lost my right engine."
The plane's wreckage was on the southbound freeway near the MacArthur Boulevard exit, on the path that aircraft follow when landing at the airport.
The airfield at John Wayne was closed to arrivals between 9:46 a.m. and 10:14 a.m., but departures were not affected, Rondinella said. About nine aircraft were diverted during that time.
Rondinella encouraged those heading to the airport to check flights before heading there.
Kurtz initially indicated no other vehicles on the freeway were struck before CHP officials confirmed that at least one was hit.
An Uber driver said his pickup truck was hit from behind.
"I was struck by this Cessna ... by the rear end of my truck, was spun around, had a passenger in there. Saw flames all around us," Blackstone Hamilton told a freelance news photographer. "Checked my passenger, made sure he was OK and gave each other a hug – that we were still alive."
Hamilton's blue Toyota Tacoma was left at the side of the road, severely damaged.
The plane's wreckage remained on the freeway for most of the day, finally being hauled off in the later afternoon as the scene was cleared and cleaned up.
Kurtz said the removal would happen after federal investigators examined the plane.
“Right now this aircraft’s home is going to be here on the southbound 405 … for a little while,” he said.
Traffic was congested in the area in the lead-up to the four-day Fourth of July holiday weekend, as the crash prompted a stretch of the 405 to be shut down for hours.
The southbound 405 was closed at State Route 55 for the majority of the day and traffic was rerouted to the northbound 55, but all lanes reopened at about 5 p.m. Two lanes on the northbound 405 -- the HOV and No. 1 lane -- were also closed temporarily.
All lanes were fully reopened as of 5:15 p.m., according to Caltrans.
Earlier in the day, Rondinella encouraged those heading to John Wayne to avoid the 405; by 1 p.m., he said, it was backed up for about 8 miles in both directions.
Late Friday Jeff Corless, spokesperson for the Orange County Global Medical Center, said the one of the victims was in stable condition, while the other was in stable, but guarded condition and would be monitored for 24 hours for internal injuries.
The FAA record for the plane's tail number indicated it was a 1975 fixed-wing Cessna 310R registered to a Santa Ana company called Twin Props.
The plane is capable of carrying up to six passengers. It was based out of John Wayne Airport, according to Rodinella.