A twin-engine airplane had crashed nose-first into the roof of a neighbor’s house, and Leo Wyatt could hear the hiss of natural gas leaking and smell airplane fuel draining from the aircraft. But his neighbors were trapped inside, and Wyatt couldn’t leave them there.
“I didn’t know what to do, I really didn’t,” Wyatt told TODAY’s Meredith Vieira on Monday, two days after he risked his own life to save three critically injured people from the small-plane crash in Compton, Calif. “My life was in danger.”
But so were other lives, and somebody had to save them.
His neighbor’s daughter, who was also in the house struck by the airplane, had managed to get out. “She kept saying, ‘Uncle Leo, my mom’s in there. My mom’s in there.’ I asked her, how did she get out of the house? She said, ‘I ran through the window.’ So I just ran through the window because at that point I saw the pilot move, and I said, ‘I gotta do something.’ ”
The 48-year-old Wyatt pulled the pilot out of the airplane and dragged him outside. As he did, the pilot said, ‘I have a passenger in there,’ ” Wyatt told Vieira. “I said, ‘What?’ And then I said, ‘I gotta go back in that house.’ I had a second-and-a-half hesitation, and I just climbed back through the window. I seen a movement in the plane, so I just reached in the plane and said, ‘We gotta get out of here. If you’ve got any strength at all you’ve gotta help me out.’ And I just pulled him out.”
But Wyatt’s heroic work wasn’t done. After laying the passenger on the grass, he knew his neighbor was still somewhere inside trapped in the debris. So he went back in again. Two more neighbors, who had responded to the shuddering crash, joined him inside, where they saw movement in the heap of debris underneath the nose of the plane. It turned out to be his neighbor’s boyfriend, whose head was severely gashed from the impact.
“The plane actually hit the boyfriend on top of his head,” Wyatt said. “They were sitting at the dining room table in the kitchen. And that’s where the plane actually landed, right on top of his head.”
The three neighbors wasted no time. “We each grabbed a limb and set him out on the lawn,” Wyatt said. He had rescued three people. But he still hadn’t found the neighbor girl’s mother.
At that point, police had arrived and told him he couldn’t go back in the house because their lives were in danger from the leaking fuel. “I said, ‘I got a family member in the house,’ ” Wyatt said. “Before he could answer me, I just took off running right back through the window. He chased me through the window. He gave me about another 10 or 15 seconds to search, then he said, ‘We gotta get out of here because we’re endangering our lives.’ ”
Other rescuers found the girl’s mother under another pile of debris outside the house, where she had been thrown by the force of the impact. She suffered a ruptured spleen, a broken eye socket, broken arm and cuts and contusions on much of her body. Everyone, including a resident of another house that was struck by one of the plane’s wings, was expected to recover.
The crash occurred just before 4 p.m. on Saturday while Wyatt and his wife were watching a movie in their den. The plane, a Cessna 310, had taken off from San Diego and was bound for Hawthorne Municipal Airport, about 10 miles from where it crashed, which was about two miles from Compton/Woodley Airport.
On Monday, the plane was still sticking out of the wrecked house, awaiting investigators who would begin to attempt to determine what caused the crash.
“We just heard a loud, loud roar,” Wyatt told Vieira in recalling the initial shock. “It was like a train ran through the house. It sounded like a car running through the home with no brakes. It just kept going and kept going.”
He ran to a window and looked out but couldn’t see anything, so he ran upstairs to scan the neighborhood and saw the plane sticking out of the shattered red tile roof of the neighboring house. When he ran outside, the girl told him of the people inside and he sprang into action.
It wasn’t the first time he’d pulled somebody from a plane. About 15 years ago, a small plane crashed into a telephone pole when Wyatt was the closest person to the scene. Then, as now, he pulled the pilot from the wreckage and saved another life.