Smoke and flames are still visible after a Cessna 310 airplane crashed and burst into flames on the San Diego (405) Freeway in Irvine. Photo via OnScene.TV.

A pilot and his passenger remained hospitalized Saturday after they were pulled from a six-seat Cessna 310 just moments after it crashed on the San Diego (405) Freeway near John Wayne Airport and burst into flames.

But in something of a miracle, the man and woman were in stable condition and expected to recover after a number of medical procedures. They initially were reported to be in critical condition when they were taken to the hospital.

There were no other injuries as the crippled aircraft avoided most vehicles after a “May Day” call from the desperate pilot.

Federal aviation safety officials Saturday were already starting their probe of the crash, but vehicle traffic along the busy freeway was back to normal. The debris-strewn, scorched pavement had been shut down for most of Friday, creating a massive traffic nightmare that backed up vehicles for miles just as the busy Fourth of July holiday driving crush got under way.

The crash occurred at 9:35 a.m. Friday after the plane developed engine trouble and was forced down in a ball of flame on the most heavily traveled freeway in the nation.

The female passenger was out of the plane, trying to aid the pilot, when John Meffert, an off-duty fire captain from Avalon on Catalina Island, came to their aid. The plane clipped Meffert’s pickup truck as it slammed into the ground.

Meffert, who was unhurt, told reporters he helped the bloody woman to safety on the freeway media and then dragged the male pilot “out of the plane and off to the side.”

Other first-responders arrived soon afterward and doused the flames using foam. There were no casualties on the ground.

The Cessna — registered to Twin Props 87297LLC and based out of Santa Ana — was trying to return to the airport with a crippled right engine minutes after takeoff when it crashed on the southbound lanes of the freeway about 1,000 feet short of Runway 20-R, according to Ian Gregor of the Federal Aviation Administration.

The 62-year-old pilot radioed that he had lost one of his engines just after takeoff and then made a frantic mayday call to air traffic controllers seconds before the plane came down on the southbound lanes, north of the MacArthur Boulevard exit.

“We got a mayday! We got a mayday! … I can’t make it back to the airport,” he could be heard saying.

The pilot and his passenger, a 55-year-old woman, “both had critical, traumatic injuries” but “had good vitals when they were moved from the aircraft,” Orange County Fire Authority Capt. Larry Kurtz said.

They were conscious when taken to Orange County Global Medical Center in Santa Ana, he said.

As of Friday night, Orange County Global Medical Center spokesman Jeff Corless said one of the patients was in a stable condition and the other was stable but guarded.

Both are expected survive, he said. Their names have not been released.

Although no other injuries were reported, authorities said several motorists briefly encountered the wreckage.

Three vehicles either struck the Cessna or parts of it on the southbound portion of the freeway and one vehicle struck some landing gear on the northbound portion, Shackleford said.

An Uber driver and his passenger also had a close call when the man’s pickup truck was clipped on the left rear side, causing it to spin out, as did the off-duty fire captain who was the first to reach the injured pilot and his wife. His car hood was scraped by one of the Cessna’s wings.

Orange County Fire Authority Capt. Larry Kurtz noted it could have been a multi-casualty situation.

“You know as well as I do know all the traffic problems on the 405 no matter where you are, and for a plane to actually land on the freeway and only clip one vehicle is extraordinary, and the fact that the person in the vehicle also was pretty much uninjured is also extraordinary,” Kurtz told reporters.

“I talked to the individual (in the truck) and he said it definitely was a shock to him to suddenly see a plane on the freeway. But the great thing is that … right now all we have is a plane on the freeway.”

An Uber driver, Blackstone Hamilton, calmly relayed his close call when interviewed by reporters at the scene. He said that as his truck spun around, he and his passenger “had flames all around us (and) thought at first it was just a big rig that hit us.

“Essentially (I) tried to regain control of my vehicle, checked my passenger to make sure he was OK, (then we) gave each other a hug that we were still alive.”

John Wayne airport was closed to arrivals from 9:36 a.m. to 10:14 a.m., but there were minimal disruptions to flights, according to Director Barry Rondinella, who said a handful of incoming flights were briefly diverted.

It was another story on the freeway, which was completely closed in both directions after the crash, creating a miles-long backup and gridlock on surrounding surface streets.

At one point, traffic was backed up for nine miles in the southbound lanes, said CHP Officer Agustin Latosquin. All northbound lanes were reopened by about 3:30 p.m., but all southbound lanes remained closed until about 4:45 p.m., when the carpool and far left main lanes reopened.

The National Transportation Safety Board and the FAA, as well as the CHP, gathered evidence at the crash scene before removing the plane.

— Staff and wire reports

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