A single-engine plane crashed into a stream just shy of Moanalua Gardens on Friday, leaving its three occupants seriously injured and skidding to a halt under a Moanalua Freeway bridge.
First responders and bystanders said the crash happened in a busy area, and could have been much worse.
The plane missed the freeway overpass by less than 2 feet.
"In my 31 years in this business, it's extremely rare to have a plane crash in urban Honolulu," said Colin Wong, of the city's Emergency Medical Services. "It's fortunate today to come out with serious injuries, but nothing critical."
Paramedics said the three occupants in the plane were all in their 20s. They were taken to the Queen's Medical Center.
The crash happened about 1:30 p.m., and wreckage of the single-engine, fixed wing Piper PA-28 was quickly engulfed in flames after the crash. Some 35 firefighters responded to the scene and put out the fire, then worked to contain airplane fuel from entering nearby waters.
Witnesses said the plane dropped quickly, and may have been experiencing engine trouble.
"It was struggling to get altitude," said Russell Shimooka, who was driving on the H-1 Freeway and saw the plane going down. "All of a sudden the plane dipped, took a hard right turn and then started heading straight toward the ground."
He added, "It was just horrifying to see this thing just drop out of the air. It was like a leaf falling to the ground."
Harley Bone was at a nearby gas station when the plane crashed. He ran to help and was the first good Samaritan to respond.
Bone said all of the occupants of the plane were responsive as he helped them get out of the plane, but they appeared to be in shock.
"It was gnarly," he said, of the plane. "It was pretty mangled."
He added, "It was on fire and that was the first thing I told them, 'Your plane is on fire and we have to get you out, like now.' And I kept repeating that."
'I thought it was going to hit freeway'
Bystanders said the pilot of the plane was able to avoid traffic on the Moanalua Freeway and a busy commercial area, landing the plane instead on the Moanalua Stream bed.
A couple of feet higher, and the plane would have slammed into the freeway.
"If it had got a little lower, he would have clipped one of those buildings. What are the chances?" Bone said.
Witness J.P. Damon was headed westbound on the freeway when he saw smoke, and called 911.
He said he thought at first that there was a debris fire under the bridge because the flames were so large. Then he saw the airplane's tail.
"I literally thought it was a couch on fire," he said.
Damon said the pilot was likely trying to get to Moanalua Gardens, but was about 200 yards short.
"It started popping. Made a couple of blasts and I was still on the phone with the fire department when it was doing that. I told them there was something igniting in it," he said.
Ezra Simbahon was coming off the freeway when he saw the plane losing altitude fast.
"I seen the plane coming down I was like what the hell is going on? Where's that plane going? And the thing just went down," he said. "I was like holy ... I thought it was going to hit the freeway and when I got closer, I seen everyone running."
Simbahon said he was worried the plane might explode and heard popping sounds erupting from the wreckage.
"I was telling everybody stand back, might blow up or something," he said. "I seen one guy crawling. But I don't know if he was actually from the plane wreckage. But he was crawling on the ground, rolling."
Plane registered to company
The FAA and NTSB have responded, and authorities are investigating the cause of the crash.
Records show the Piper model PA-28, with tail no. N4244T, was manufactured in 1971 and re-certified last year.
The registered owner of the plane, Jahn P. Mueller, has a Honolulu address. National Transportation Safety Board records show no prior incidents involving the aircraft.
In a statement released Saturday, Muller said, "My heart goes out to the pilot and passengers and their families. We commend the pilot for steering the plane to minimize tragedy. We thank the bystanders who helped assist the victims. The plane has a spotless safety record and a new engine, and had been flown just one hour before that particular flight."
Muller confirms he rented out the plane to one individual who then had two passengers, but could not provide their identities. He also said he has not been able to speak with those on the flight since the accident.
Mueller owns Aircraft Maintenance Hawaii, which advertises itself as a family-owned aircraft company specializing in small aircraft engines. Mueller worked in aircraft maintenance at Hawaiian Airlines before starting the company.
His website says the company also provides expert flight instructors able to train pilots all the way to commercial pilot status.