Sunday, March 08, 2015

Five years after a plane crash killed three Tesla executives, a day care center that was destroyed in the accident is reborn: Cessna 310R, Air Unique, Inc., N5225J

EAST PALO ALTO -- Every morning, after the children had finished their pancakes and juice, the instructors at Eppie's Day Care formed the little ones into a prayer circle to give thanks for all their blessings. But on Feb. 17, 2010, Lisa Jones had not yet walked from her home into the converted garage that served as a reception area for the kids, because it was not yet 8 a.m. and only one of her "little ducklings" had arrived.

What the heavens rained down on Jones' nursery school five years ago was not a blessing. It was an airplane.

A twin-engine Cessna taking off moments earlier from Palo Alto Airport in dense fog had struck a PG&E transformer tower, then plummeted toward her Beech Street home, shearing off a wing on the roof before bursting into flames. All three of the plane's passengers were killed instantly, and Jones' life slowly began to unravel.

Her home, and the life she had known, were gone. What followed was an odyssey with 10 stops, as Jones and her teenage daughter moved constantly from place to place, sometimes staying in housing so temporary it was demolished as soon as they left.

For 17 years, Jones had taught the children in her charge about life's limitless possibilities, and now her own life came to a halt. "It felt," she recalled recently, "like you were dead."

Last week, Eppie's Day Care reopened for the first time in five years, but nobody came. This followed an epic struggle to help Jones realize her dream to rebuild the little schoolroom just as it was on the day of the accident.

The three men who died on the plane were employees of Palo Alto-based Tesla. They were on their way to Southern California to work on the company's new electric car, the Model S, which was behind schedule.

Pilot Doug Bourn was a Tesla engineer, and when the National Transportation Safety Board ruled that the crash was caused by pilot error, Jones filed suit against his estate as well as Tesla in Santa Clara County Superior Court.

The suit was filed five months after Tesla offered its stock on Wall Street for the first time at $19 a share. When the day care center reopens Monday -- one child is coming, with two more due by mid-week -- Tesla stock will trade at 10 times its IPO price. The Model S has been twice named Consumer Reports' car of the year, and in true Silicon Valley fashion, many of the company's employees are now millionaires.

"I think Lisa was initially very hopeful that there would be some resolution based on the fact that it was a Tesla plane that had crashed into her house," said Maryan Ackley, a longtime friend of Jones, "and that there would be some form of financial settlement."

Bourn's insurance company had initially promised to make the day care center a top priority, but even as her neighbors received settlements, Jones' case dragged on. "There would be delay after delay," Ackley said. "I don't fault Tesla. Their insurance company did what any insurance company would do -- they fought it tooth and nail."

Attempts to reach Tesla representatives for comment were unsuccessful.

Without revealing its terms, Jones characterized the settlement she finally received as "disappointing." And without adequate insurance of her own, she was able only to pay off her mortgage, with nothing left to rebuild her business.

Ackley had been close to Jones since their children were in kindergarten together at Sacred Heart School in Atherton. So she and her husband, Stephen -- co-founder of the real estate firm Pacific Peninsula Group -- stepped in to spearhead a fundraising drive. "Here's someone doing her best to raise a family and run her day care," Maryan Ackley said, "and out of the sky falls a plane."

The father of another member of the Kindergarten Mafia, David Dollinger of Dollinger Properties, offered a $125,000 matching grant, and the Ackleys called in favors from subcontractors and the Redwood City nonprofit Rebuilding Together. In all, cash and in-kind contributions amounted to nearly $400,000, Maryan Ackley said, and many families whose lives had been touched by the day care center stopped by to help put the place back together.

Through it all, Jones' daughter Diaja, now 17, kept going to Sacred Heart, where she became president of her freshman class. At one point, mother and daughter were forced to live with Jones' brother in Elk Grove, just outside Sacramento. "I was commuting back and forth every day getting my daughter to school," Jones said, "leaving at about 3:30 every morning."

It didn't make it any easier than many of the students at Diaja's school were children of Tesla employees. "I was really surprised -- and hurt, especially with Tesla," Jones said, sitting amid the gleaming splendor of the restored day care center. "They made it seem like I was a crab, just trying to grab money. All they had to do for me was come out and put my house back. They could've hired a contractor to do that."

In the meantime, she learned she has friends she never knew cared about her, a lesson she hopes to pass on to the children in her school when they come back.

"I'm pinching myself," Jones said, "to make sure that I finally am here."


NTSB Identification: WPR10FA136
14 CFR Part 91: General Aviation
Accident occurred Wednesday, February 17, 2010 in Palo Alto, CA
Probable Cause Approval Date: 11/22/2011
Aircraft: CESSNA 310R, registration: N5225J
Injuries: 3 Fatal.

NTSB investigators either traveled in support of this investigation or conducted a significant amount of investigative work without any travel, and used data obtained from various sources to prepare this aircraft accident report.

The pilot departed the airport in near-zero visibility instrument meteorological conditions, and shortly after takeoff, struck a power pole and power lines before impacting terrain. Review of recorded air traffic control tower (ATCT) transmissions revealed that the pilot was initially given his instrument flight rules (IFR) clearance to turn right to a heading of 060 degrees and climb to 3,000 feet. Shortly after verifying his IFR clearance, the pilot received his IFR release from the ATCT controller and was informed that the runway was not visible to the controller. The controller further informed the pilot that takeoff was at his own risk. Shortly after, the controller notified the pilot that he had two minutes for his IFR release, before it expired. The pilot stated that he did not hear a "cleared for takeoff" instruction from the controller. The controller responded that he could not clear the pilot for takeoff, due to not having the runway environment in sight and that "the release is all yours and it's at your own risk sir." The pilot acknowledged the transmission and proceeded to take off. One witness, who was adjacent to the accident site, reported that she observed an airplane “suddenly appear from the fog” left of her position. The witness stated that she continued to watch the airplane fly in a level or slightly nose up attitude until it impacted power lines. 

Accident site evidence was indicative of a level impact with a power pole about 50 feet above ground level (agl) and at a high airspeed. All major structural components of the airplane were located within the wreckage debris path. Examination of the airframe, engines and propellers disclosed no evidence of any preimpact mechanical anomaly. Weather conditions reported five minutes prior to the accident were wind variable at 5 knots, visibility 1/8th mile, fog, and vertical visibility of 100 feet agl. Weather conditions recorded by the ATCT 11 minutes after the time of the accident were visibility 1/16th mile, fog, and a vertical visibility of 100 feet agl. 

Local law enforcement provided recordings from a sound recording system, which captured the accident sequence. The recordings were coupled with airport surveillance radar to interpolate a flightpath for the airplane. The interpolated flightpath indicated an approximate 45-degree left turn shortly after departure to the area of initial impact with the power pole and power lines. A sound spectrum study determined both engines were operating near full power.

The National Transportation Safety Board determines the probable cause(s) of this accident as follows:
The pilot’s failure follow the standard instrument departure as instructed, and his failure to attain a sufficient altitude to maintain clearance from power lines during takeoff in instrument meteorological conditions.

 Doug Bourn

This undated photo provided by Tesla Motors on Thursday, Feb. 18, 2010 shows pilot Doug Bourn, 56, a senior electrical engineer and a five-year employee of the company. Bourn and two other colleagues were killed on Wednesday, Feb. 17, 2010, after the Cessna 310 they were on crashed in East Palo Alto, Calif.

This undated photo provided by Tesla Motors on Thursday, Feb. 18, 2010 shows Andrew Ingram, 31, an electrical engineer and a two-and-a-half-year employee of the company. Ingram and two other colleagues were killed on Wednesday, Feb. 17, 2010, after the  Cessna 310 they were on crashed in East Palo Alto, Calif. 

 This undated photo provided by Tesla Motors on Thursday, Feb. 18, 2010 shows Brian Finn 42, a senior interactive electronics manager of the company. Finn and two other colleagues were killed on Wednesday, Feb. 17, 2010, after the Cessna 310 they were on crashed in East Palo Alto, Calif.

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