PHILADELPHIA -- A private plane carrying Sen. John Heinz collided with a helicopter in clear skies over suburban Lower Merion Township just west of here yesterday, triggering a fiery midair explosion that rained burning debris over an elementary school playground.
Seven people died: Mr. Heinz, four pilots and two first-grade girls at play outside the school. At least five other people on the ground were injured, three of them children, one of whom was in critical condition with burns.
Flaming and smoking wreckage tumbled to the earth around Merion Elementary School in the community of Narberth, but the gray stone building and its occupants were spared. Frightened children ran from the playground as teachers herded others outside. Within minutes, anxious parents began streaming to the school in jogging suits, business clothes and housecoats. Most were rewarded with emotional reunions amid the smell of acrid smoke.
"It looked like two planes were fighting, Mom," Mark Kessler, 6, of Wynnewood told his mother, Gail, after she raced to the school. Mark was one of an estimated 50 to 60 schoolchildren on the playground when the collision occurred. At least 400 youngsters attend the school.
Mr. Heinz, 52, and two pilots from Lycoming County were nearing Philadelphia International Airport when, at 12:04 p.m., they reported trouble with the plane's landing gear. Hearing their call, two pilots in a nearby Sun Co. helicopter volunteered to fly near the plane and take a closer look.
As the helicopter hovered below the airplane, witnesses said, xTC the two aircraft collided. The plane exploded in a fireball, while the helicopter fell largely intact.
"It was one horrible thing to watch," said Helen Amadio, an elderly woman who was walking near her home when the crash occurred. "It exploded like a bomb. Black smoke just poured."
Wreckage from the plane fell near the exit of a circular drive in front of the school. The helicopter crashed behind the school -- about 10 feet from a first-floor classroom -- where first- and second-graders were playing during recess.
Had the crash occurred 15 minutes later, a school employee said, hundreds more children might have been in the schoolyard.
Debris fell throughout the upper middle-class residential neighborhood. A plane tire came to rest several blocks away.
Investigators from the National Transportation Safety Board were sent to the scene to try to determine the cause of the crash. Susan Couglin, vice chairwoman of the NTSB, said the board would spend four or five days collecting evidence.
Firefighters hosed down the wreckage for more than an hour. Bodies of the victims were covered and left at the scene until late afternoon while investigators tried to positively identify them. From their classrooms, some children whose parents hadn't yet come for them peeked through Venetian blinds at the sheet-covered bodies.
The bodies of the adults were burned beyond recognition, officials said. Mr. Heinz was identified through his American Express card and through a wristband found at the scene, said Alan Kessler, a Lower Merion Township commissioner, after a township briefing on the accident.
When children were allowed back inside the school, "We took a count and we knew we had two kids missing," said Principal Marvin Gold. Two names were called over the loudspeaker -- first-graders Rachel Blum and Lauren Freundlich.
Teacher Sandra Barrett said Lauren's mother, Andrea, came first to the third-grade class of her son Austin. They then went in search of Lauren.
"Austin kept saying, 'I can't find my sister,' " Ms. Barrett said. "It was horrendous."
The helicopter pilots were identified as Charles H. Burke, 42, of Coatesville and Michael Pozzani, 43, of Elverson. Both were employees of Sun Co., a Radnor energy firm that owned the Bell 412SP twin-engine craft -- Mr. Burke for six years, Mr. Pozzani for 10.
Mr. Burke and Mr. Pozzani were en route from Philadelphia International to Sun's corporate headquarters in Radnor, where they were to pick up officials attending a monthly company board meeting.
Killed along with Mr. Heinz were pilots Richard Shreck and Trond Stegen. Both were employed by Lycoming Air Service of Lycoming.
Mr. Heinz's rented Piper Aerostar PA-60 twin-engine turboprop took off yesterday morning from Williamsport, where the senator had held a news conference on the pending federal transportation budget. He had been scheduled for a 3 p.m. conference with the Philadelphia Inquirer's editorial board.
Mr. Heinz, a U.S. Republican senator since 1976, was an heir to the H. J. Heinz food empire.
Of the five people whose injuries were reported, the most seriously hurt was David Rutenberg, 7, of Wynnewood. He suffered burns over two-thirds of his body and was listed in critical condition.
"He's awake, alert," Deborah Lessin-Silverman, a cousin of the boy, said last night. "When his mother kissed him, his pulse rate went up."
Two other students, a 6-year-old girl and an 8-year-old girl, were treated at Osteopathic Medical Center of Philadelphia for second-degree burns to their hands and faces.
A school custodian, 48-year-old John Fowler, and reading specialist Ivy Weeks, 49, suffered burns as they tried to help young David. After hearing the explosion, they rushed down a stairway and saw David coming through the door, his clothing on fire.
Trying to smother the flames, Ms. Weeks caught the boy in a bear hug and fell with him to the floor. She called to Mr. Fowler, who threw a denim jacket over David to extinguish the rest of the fire.