Local surgeon killed in plane crash near Montgomery Field

A pilot was killed when a plane crashed near Montgomery Field early Wednesday, Feb. 21.
(John Gibbins / San Diego Union-Tribune)

A small plane crashed shortly after taking off from Montgomery Field early Wednesday morning, Feb. 21, diving nose-first into a Kearny Mesa parking lot under construction and killing the pilot, authorities said.

Family members identified the 61-year-old victim as Dr. John Serocki, a Del Mar resident. The orthopedic surgeon practiced at the Yuma Regional Medical Center in Yuma, Ariz., and at Scripps Memorial Hospital in San Diego.

“Today we have lost an exceptional physician, colleague and friend, a man who dedicated his life and career to caring for patients,” Dr. Bharat Magu, chief medical officer at the Yuma Medical Center, said in a statement. “Dr. Serocki was an outstanding physician who genuinely cared for people. His compassion and kind nature will be deeply missed.”

The plane, a single-engine Cirrus SR22-T, went down in a fenced-off dirt lot next to a building on Ruffin Road near Balboa Avenue shortly after 6:30 a.m., authorities said.

Serocki, who had planned to fly to Yuma, crashed about a half-mile from Montgomery Field shortly after departing the airport, said Ian Gregor, a spokesman for the Federal Aviation Administration. No one on the ground was injured.

According to FAA records, the plane was registered to Serocki. His brother said Serocki had been commuting to Yuma by airplane for work for years.

Witnesses told fire officials that the plane was going from west to east when it went down, San Diego Fire-Rescue Battalion Chief Grace Yamane said.

“Witnesses saw the plane and it appeared it wasn’t getting enough lift,” she said. “It wasn’t continuing to rise — it rolled a couple times and then nose dove into the site.”

There was no fire and any fuel that spilled was immediately handled by crews at the scene, said San Diego Fire-Rescue spokeswoman Mónica Muñoz.

“It did not spread beyond the dirt” where the plane went down, she said. “They were able to mitigate it immediately because they were there so quickly.”

A parachute that was extended but unopened was found near the plane. An FAA official said the chute may been have ejected when the plane hit the ground, as opposed to having been deployed by the pilot while it was in the air, Yamane said.

The plane was largely intact with a crushed nose, although its wings broke off upon impact.

The area where the plane crashed in Kearny Mesa is densely developed with office and industrial buildings. Yamane said it was fortunate that no one else was injured.

“We are lucky that there was no damage to structures and no injuries to anyone on the ground,” she said. “If you were here to see, he landed between two trees, too.”

Firefighters waited to make sure there was no danger from the cylinder that propels the parachute before they removed the pilot’s body from the wreckage.

Serocki began his education in mechanical engineering. He earned a degree in applied mechanics and engineering sciences from UC San Diego in three years, but knew he didn’t want to be an engineer. He ended up getting a master’s in mechanical engineering from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology — but only as a springboard to medical school, his brother said.

He went on to earn a medical degree from Northwestern University Medical School in Chicago, later becoming an orthopedic surgeon. He had practiced for 25 years.

“He was passionate about being a doctor,” Robert Serocki said. “It was something he felt he needed to do.”

His profession took him to Kathmandu, Nepal, where he worked with underprivileged children as a clinician and a researcher, as well as Croatia, where he was a volunteer orthopedic surgeon and clinical instructor for an international relief agency.

He was also a member of Doctors Without Borders.

Serocki worked at Mission Bay Hospital and Sharp Memorial Hospital in San Diego. He began working part time in Yuma in 2012.

When he wasn’t practicing medicine, he was living an active life. He ran half-marathons and marathons and had climbed mountains all over the world, including the Matterhorn. He loved to surf.

Although he was always modest about his many accomplishments, he always reminded his younger brother of the pulp fiction character Doc Savage — a genius, jack-of-all-trades physician.

“He was concerned about being the best possible human being he could be,” Robert Serocki said.

-- Karen Kucher and Lyndsay Winkley are writers for The San Diego Union Tribune