A 91-year-old World War II bombardier who owned a steel company in East Palo Alto was among those killed when a small plane crashed into a lagoon in Redwood Shores shortly after taking off from San Carlos Airport on Thursday morning.
Robert Edward Borrmann, who owned R.E. Borrmann Steel Co., a pilot and the pilot’s girlfriend were aboard the Beechcraft Queen Air plane that took off at approximately 11:50 a.m., according to workers at the company and public safety officials. The plane was headed to San Martin, a small town 26 miles south of San Jose, according to Charlene Marshall, one of the employees at the East Palo Alto steel company.
Within three minutes of the takeoff, calls started pouring in to 911 that a plane had crashed into a lagoon three-quarters of a mile north of the airport. The lagoon, which borders U.S. Highway 101, is ringed by businesses, residences and open space.
When rescue teams arrived, several residents of nearby Twin Dolphin Drive were in the water trying to rescue victims, according to Redwood City Fire Battalion Chief David Pucci.
“They were about 150 feet from shore,” he said. “There were two swimmers and one kayaker trying to pull a woman ashore.”
Extra precautions were used during the rescue attempts by public safety officers, as the lagoon is the site of a 48,000-gallon raw-sewage spill after a pipe ruptured underneath it last week. Residents previously were advised to avoid contact with the water because of high levels of the bacteria E. coli.
The woman, who is believed to be in her 40s, was found near the wreckage. She was pronounced dead at the scene.
Four hours later, two other bodies were found underneath the wreckage, which was roughly six feet under the water. The identities of all three victims were not released by authorities.
The crash was the end of a long life of flying for Borrmann, according to Marshall, who fought back tears Thursday afternoon as she spoke about her boss.
“He was like a grandfather to me,” she said.
Marshall said Borrmann was a B-17 pilot in the Second World War and he owned a number of planes in his lifetime, including the Beechcraft Queen Air he was aboard Thursday morning.
Borrmann, nicknamed the “Man of Steel,” was born in San Francisco in December 1918, according to an article on his company’s website. He fought in 52 combat missions during World War II, the article states.
After being discharged from the Army, Borrmann continued to fly regularly for 49 years and founded his steel company in East Palo Alto in 1954.
The cause of the crash remains unclear as the National Transportation Safety Board, whose investigators were on their way from Seattle on Thursday afternoon, takes over the probe.
Boom, then a leap into lagoon
When Kevin Seely heard a loud boom from a plane hitting the water in front of his Redwood Shores office, he didn’t hesitate to run and help.
The 33-year-old Redwood City resident and his colleague ran outside and dove into the murky water that is Oracle Lagoon — which was recently contaminated with raw sewage.
“I didn’t think at all,” he said. “I just reacted.”
Halfway out to the plane, Seely smelled the jet fuel in the water and stopped.
“I thought it would catch fire,” he said, but he kept going.
He got within about five feet of the plane, he said, and saw one person who was already dead.
That person was a woman in her 40s, according to the Redwood City Fire Department Battalion Chief Dave Pucci. She was not identified, but she was found in the water near the plane.
The two other victims on the plane were found in the wreckage four hours after San Mateo County Sheriff’s Department dive team arrived on site.
Seely said he hears planes take off from the small San Carlos business airport less than a mile south, but that this engine sounded like it was struggling.
“I knew something was wrong,” he said.