NEVADA COUNTY -- Flight operations at the Nevada County Airport continued uninterrupted after a deadly fire at Sierra Mountain Aviation located right next to the runway.
It started at the beginning of the workday at Sierra Mountain Aviation’s maintenance hangar. There were three airplanes inside.
The fire call came in as a rescue and flames had subsided by the time fire crews arrived.
"The fire sprinklers had activated and we did have to rescue one person, who unfortunately is deceased," Nevada County Consolidated Fire District Fire Marshal Terry McMahon said.
The fire sprinklers, along with a fire wall that split the building, saved the business next door. It was able to resume partial operations with just smoke damage.
But it was the smoke that may very well have been deadly.
"Fiberglass and the upholsteries and the things that they use in them, the smoke was dark and was down low to the ground," McMahon said. "Very toxic."
The victim is 65-year-old John Pichitino, a longtime pilot, flight instructor and mechanic at the airport. Word spread quickly among the tightly knit flying community at the airport.
"People are really getting emotional because he was a well-known person around here and touched a lot of people’s lives," airport manager Lee Ocker said.
In a stroke of irony, the last fire at the airport was in 1994 in another hangar not a hundred yards from Wednesday's fire. It also killed a pilot.
Pilot and flight instructor Ken Joyce knew both victims, adding to the sense of tragedy.
"Married with a wife and one kid and just unfortunate thing that smoke got to him before anybody could get to him," Joyce said.
A female office worker was also treated for smoke inhalation and was hospitalized with non-life threatening injuries.
Meanwhile, the investigation continues into what may have caused the fire.