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A birthday ride in a light plane ended with the death of four people when the plane crashed on Friday near Moshav Batzrah in the Sharon. The reasons for the crash are still unknown.

Aviram Pasternak, 32, of Hadera had invited his friend Menachem Ben Zacharia of Netanya for a plane ride in honor of the latter's 33rd birthday. Itai Pasternak, Aviram's 25-year-old brother, also went along, and the plane was piloted by Eliav Arbel, a 30-year-old woman from Carmei Yosef. All four were killed in the crash.

"We found a plane stuck in the ground," said an official involved in investigating the accident. "Almost nothing was left of it. Small bits of it were scattered about. To my sorrow, so were bits of the deceased's bodies. There were bloodstains on the metal fragments that were once a plane. The sight was extremely difficult. A real horror."

The plane, a Cessna 172, took off at 5 P.M. on Friday from the Herzliya Airport. It was apparently flying at an altitude of about 1,100 meters, and in the process of turning around for the return flight, when something went wrong: It began plummeting, and hit the ground at nearly a right angle.

Tom Chen, 28, of Moshav Batzrah saw the crash occur. "I was talking on the phone out on the sidewalk when I suddenly saw a plane coming from the east, and seesawing," he said. "At first, it was making a normal noise, then there was a loud noise like a tractor, and then it fell. I heard screams from the plane. It fell with the nose down, and the fuel tank exploded ... I ran toward them because I wanted to rescue them, but I very quickly understood that there was nothing to rescue."

Yesterday, investigators began gathering remnants of the plane, which belonged to the FNA company of Herzliya. The fragments will now be examined by a team headed by Yitzhak Raz, the Transportation Ministry's chief aerial accident investigator. The bodies and body parts were taken to the Institute of Forensic Medicine in Abu Kabir for identification.

Currently, investigators are still in the dark as to whether the crash was due to human error, a technical failure or some combination of the two. From the information that has been gleaned so far, the official investigator explained, "the entire spectrum of possibilities remains open."

"Even if it turns out that it was a technical failure, it will take time before we can determine which part of the plane failed," he continued. "It will be necessary, for instance, to open up the engine and see whether there was a problem with it. The plane parts will be sent for laboratory testing. It will be necessary to listen to the recordings of communications between the control tower and the plane. As far as is known at this stage, no distress signals were received prior to the crash. From the aerial picture taken by the tower's radar, it will be possible to see where exactly the plane began losing height. All this will help in investigating the cause of the accident, and it will take some time."

Aviation professionals speculated that the crash might have been due to deliberate action by someone aboard the plane.

"The accident seems strange," explained one. "Especially the sharp angle at which the plane crashed straight into the ground. It recalls the dive of the Egyptian passenger plane whose pilot decided to commit suicide and aimed it directly at the ground, in a very similar fashion."

However, the official investigator rejected this theory.

Noa Kosharek contributed to this report