Steve Kiser realized the small airplane "wasn't going to make it" when he saw it flying low toward his home, barely clearing the power lines.
Then, Kiser said, it veered and slammed into the street next to a parked vehicle.
"It blew up and all the trees caught fire," Kiser told the Riverside Press-Enterprise.
Now, investigators are working to find out why the plane went down Wednesday night, killing all three people aboard.
According to Riverside Fire Battalion Chief Mike Esparza, witnesses said the plane started having trouble as soon after taking off from Riverside Municipal Airport, less than a half mile away.
Said Esparza: "The pilot did one heck of a job avoiding these homes and preventing anyone else from being hurt."
Firefighters received calls of the crash just after 10 p.m., and when they arrived the plane was engulfed in flames, Esparza said.
Overhead video of the scene on KCAL TV showed firefighters dousing flames over the smashed remains of the plane and a vehicle.
It was the third plane crash in Riverside County in a little more than a month.
Four people suffered minor injuries Tuesday when a small plane crash-landed in a brush-covered canyon near Murrieta.
On Jan. 20, two small planes collided over Corona, killing five people, including one on the ground hit by falling debris.