(Editor's note: The final death toll of PSA Flight 182 was 144, including seven people on the ground.)
SAN DIEGO (UPI) -- A Pacific Southwest Airlines Boeing 727 with at least 136 persons aboard collided in flight with a small Cessna today and plunged into a residential neighborhood in the worst air accident in U.S. history.
Everyone aboard the jet as well as a student pilot and his instructor aboard the Cessna and at least one person on the ground were reported killed. Several others on the ground were rushed to hospitals.
The death toll of 139 was the worst for an airplane collision in U.S. history. In December 1960 two commercial planes collided over New York City, killing 128 aboard the planes and six others on the ground.
The worst air disaster in history occurred March 27, 1977, at Tenerife in the Canary Islands, when two jumbo jets collided, killing 582.
The PSA plane, Flight 182 from Sacramento to Los Angeles, was on its landing approach when it collided with the Cessna 150 two-seater at 3,000 feet, the Federal Aviation Administration said.
"I saw the jet plane ... It was smoking on the right side," said Phil Hopkins, a witness. "The right inboard engine was burning and it exploded into a fireball ... and spiraled to the ground."
The jetliner smashed into a row of houses along Dwight Street in the North Park district, about five miles from the city airport, Lindbergh Field. As it careened along the street wreckage was spewed across a wide area, injuring several persons. At least six homes were set afire.
"There were bodies lying everywhere," said Barry Fitzsimmons, a photographer for the San Diego Evening Tribune who was one of the first on the scene. "A block of homes was on fire. It was horrible. The only thing you could see of the plane was a PSA engine. All the other wreckage appeared to level the whole block."
Residents of the neighborhood were said to be mostly elderly persons.
Lynn During, a reporter for radio station KSDO, said the 727 crashed with a sound "like a sonic boom." The station is in a high-rise building a few blocks from the crash site, and in the plane's flight pattern.
"I looked out the window and saw people dodging the wreckage," During said.
PSA said the plane left Sacramento at 7:20 a.m. and made a stop in Los Angeles. It had at least 129 passengers and a crew of seven aboard and possibly more. The airline said there possibly were more individuals on board because there were 11 seats available for employees.
Among the passengers it was known there were 19 PSA employees.
A command center and temporary morgue was set up at St. Augustine's High School, several blocks away.
Rev. James Clifford, a teacher at St. Augstine's, said: "I was standing in the patio talking to two other teachers and looking up in the sky. I saw the 727 and the Cessna. The small plane looked like it was ascending slightly at the same time the 727 was descending for its approach.
"Right then I said, they look too close. The next thing they hit and exploded into a ball of fire."
He said the PSA jet "appeared to bank around and downward and then it crashed.
"At first, it looked like it was coming right at the school. I yelled for everyone to get out and run because it was coming right for us."
After the crash, Clifford said, "I got into a car with a Baptist minister and we administered general absolution after we got to the scene. There were bodies and parts of bodies everywhere. Everything was in flames in the street."
More than 200 police and fire fighters went to the scene, along with 20 ambulances. Rescue helicopters were using the schoolyard for a heliport.
Mrs. Georgia Miller, who lives two blocks from the site, said she was outside talking to her sister when she heard the noise.
"I looked at her to say 'run' but there was no place to run," she said. "It came down with flames and I heard a tremendous explosion. Debris flew all over."
The Red Cross issued an emergency appeal for blood donors. Many persons gathered outside the high school, praying for the victims.
The FAA and the PSA crew was able to alert ground controllers before the crash.
"The pilot called the tower and said he was going down," an FAA spokesman said. The spokesman said the PSA jet was making its landing approach to the airport's Runway 27 under visual flight rules, and said air controllers saw the Cessna disappear from radar scenes at the same time as the 727.
The National Transportation Safety Board immediately sent a team of accident investigators from Washington to take charge of the investigation.
A spokeswoman for PSA in San Diego said it was the first crash in the airline's history. PSA is an intra-state airline with routes connecting most of California's major cities.