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This could have been more tragic than it was! Unfortunately, the pilot lost his life. No Highway Patrol personnel injured.

A small plane slammed into the front of the California Highway Patrol weigh station shortly after 6 p.m. Wednesday, killing the pilot, according to Gilroy Fire Battalion Chief Phil King.

The crash shattered windows, broke water pipes inside the building and sparked a small fire. Thick black smoke could be seen for miles but quickly dissipated as about 25 firefighters from Gilroy, Santa Clara County and CalFIre extinguished the fire.

There were no other injuries because CHP officers spent the day training and the building was vacant, according to CHP Assistant Chief Troy Abney. Everyone who had been there left by mid afternoon, he said.

"Ironically, today was training day," Abney said. "Man, I'm glad it was closed today." It will remain so until at least Thursday afternoon, Abney said, as Federal Aviation Administration investigators, assisted by CHP personnel, figure out exactly what happened.

Until then, John Godwin just has his observations. The flight instructor at San Jose's Reid-Hillview Airport and the plane's co-owner sat in his truck at the beginning of the South County Airport runway when he saw his 1977 single-engine plane suddenly veer off its steady landing approach. It crashed into the CHP building, which sits east of the highway, less than a mile south of the San Martin airport.

"It was coming in steady as a rock, wings perfectly level on either side," Godwin said.

"It was hard watching it … Marty gave new meaning to the phrase conservative pilot," Godwin, 69, said of the pilot, who had been his good friend for more than 20 years and was also one of the plane's three co-owners.

"He would spend 45 minutes during pre-flight, inspecting stuff, when most guys spend about 10 minutes," Godwin said.

The plane was registered to the company Silicon Rallye and to the name Martin Shapiro, according to FAA records. Marty was an "angel pilot" who would fly needy residents to and from far-away medical care in the four-seater plane, Godwin said. Shapiro was such a careful professional pilot that he wanted to do some practice landings at San Martin before returning to Reid-Hillview Airport with the plane's new paint job: the reason it was down here, Godwin said.

After taking off northbound, Shapiro circled around and came back for a northbound landing on the same runway. The cautious practice landing went awry, though, as the plane crashed into the thick concrete facade of the CHP building, just north of the undamaged, large bay windows looking out over U.S. 101. The weigh station, on the northbound side of U.S. 101 between Morgan Hill and Gilroy, is located less than a mile south of the airport.

As he remembered his friend, Godwin stood in the twilight in front of his truck as media helicopters hovered above the highway. His license plate bore the same alpha-numeric combination, N711BZ, as the destroyed plane. The charred rudder of the navy blue and white plane flapped in the wind while firefighters whisked about, but only the 'Z' and half the 'B' could be seen. A twisted body of blackened metal was all that remained of the fuselage. The facade of the building was covered in soot.

Ricardo Lopez was riding his bike behind the weigh station when he saw the plane flying low as if it was going to make a landing.

"It looked like it was going to land," the Sycamore Avenue resident said. "It sounded like an explosion," he said of the loud crash he heard when the plane plowed into the building. "I was scared."

Lopez's neighbor, Leona Reif, was heading back to her home at 12280 Sycamore Ave., from her friend's house where she was dropping off fresh fruit from her orchards when she saw a plume of smoke rising from above the station. Worried that it was her house, which is situated directly behind the station on the other side of a sound wall, she stepped on the gas, she said.

"The smoke was so close to my house," she said. "It was a shock, all that black smoke. I didn't know where it was coming from."

Hermila Rodriguez was at her home making dinner when she heard sirens racing by her home on Sycamore. She didn't hear the crash because she was in her home but said that thick, black smoke filled the sky above the crash. Soon three media helicopters hovered over the scene, which reeked of diesel and burned plastic.

Traffic was not blocked, but it had slowed to a crawl as of 6:45 p.m. More than two dozen motorists were standing next to their parked cars on a nearby overpass watching as emergency personnel worked the scene.

An hour later, just five engines were on scene. Most of the onlookers had left, and firefighters continued to cut open the roof and douse the smoldering guts of structure's roof.

Article with pictures: http://www.gilroydispatch.com/news/2...-weigh-station

Gilroy Dispatch
August 20th, 2008
 
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