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Two victims identified in fiery plane crash outside Airport Chevrolet in Medford

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MEDFORD, Ore. — NewsWatch 12 has identified the two occupants of a plane that went down at the Airport Chevrolet dealership in Medford on Sunday evening shortly after taking off from the Rogue Valley International-Medford Airport.

The Medford Police Department had previously confirmed only one fatality, the aircraft pilot. But a preliminary incident report from the Federal Aviation Administration listed two — one flight crew and one passenger.

The aircraft, a Piper PA-31-350 "Navajo Chieftain" twin-propeller plane, was manufactured in 1977. It was registered to 69-year-old Donald Harbert Sefton of Fallon, Nevada.

NewsWatch 12 independently verified that Sefton was the plane's pilot, and that his passenger was 67-year-old Valerie Jean Serpa, also of Fallon. Medford Police confirmed the identities of both people on Monday night.

Serpa served as executive director of the Churchill Arts Council in Fallon. The organization's website says that she was a native of Fallon, had an extensive record of community service, and was a member of the Churchill Arts Council since its inception.

The pilot, Sefton, owned two businesses in Fallon — Systems Aviation and Systems Consultants. The latter does business with wildlife departments in several states.

According to flight logs, Sefton's plane originally left Fallon Municipal Airport on the morning of Wednesday, November 24 and arrived in Medford at noon that day. On Sunday, he departed the Medford airport at 4:50 p.m. and was supposed to arrive back in Fallon at 6:50 p.m., but crashed just minutes after takeoff.

Investigators from the National Transportation Safety Board and FAA were scheduled to arrive in Medford on Monday afternoon to begin an inquest into the crash, according to City of Medford officials.

"The Medford Police Department, Medford Fire Department and the Jackson County Medical Examiner will be working closely with, and at the direction of, the FAA and NTSB," said Kristina Johnsen, communications and marketing manager for the City.

Video provided to NewsWatch 12 from two sources shows that the plane descended rapidly and at a near-vertical angle before slamming into the Airport Chevy lot, creating a plume of smoke and then exploding into flame seconds later.

"Aircraft crashed under unknown circumstances into a car dealership and caught on fire, Medford, OR," the FAA brief says.

In a recording of the air traffic control chatter, it's possible to hear the airport tower communicating with Sefton in the lead-up to the crash, giving him instructions on how to maneuver after takeoff. Then an alarm begins to sound.

"Low altitude alert, Navajo six four Bravo Romeo, check your altitude immediately," the air traffic controller says. "That's altimeter at 3-0-3-9er, your altitude indicates 1,700 ... Navajo six four Bravo Romeo, are you on talk? Navajo six four Bravo Romeo, how do you hear?"

Moments later, when the air traffic controller begins speaking again, his voice is charged with urgency as he calls for the Medford airport's rescue and firefighter team:

"Truck 80, Medford Tower, the aircraft appears to have crashed over by the Subaru Chevron [sic] dealer, approximately one mile from the airport due south."

There were no reports of injuries to anyone on the ground. NewsWatch 12 also learned that Cascade Christian High School basketball players were told to shelter in place inside of the high school's gym for an unknown amount of time.

Airport Chevrolet said shortly after 9 a.m. on Monday that its Sales department was back open after the building was damaged and lost power in the crash. The dealership said that no staff were injured.

"Our condolences go out to the family and friends of the pilot," Airport Chevrolet said in a Facebook post.