Autopsy shows trace of cocaine, alcohol in pilot who crashed at White House

September 14, 1994|By Carl M. Cannon and John Fairhall | Carl M. Cannon and John Fairhall,Washington Bureau of The Sun

WASHINGTON -- The 38-year-old Aberdeen man who died after crash-landing a plane on the White House grounds Monday had "trace" amounts of cocaine in his system and a blood alcohol content of .045 -- just above the legal limit for a pilot, Secret Service officials said yesterday.

As results of an autopsy on Frank Eugene Corder were disclosed, the investigation of his crash began to focus on at least one obvious way to enhance presidential security: Beefing up the number of air traffic controllers working Washington's air space at night.

In the short term, Monday's early morning episode has left the Secret Service shaken -- and scrambling to repair its image.

In its initial efforts to shield the agency from being second-guessed, various officials cast blame on the Federal Aviation Administration, which they said had picked up the Cessna 150 flown by Mr. Corder, 38, on FAA radar screens at National Airport, but that this information was not passed to the Secret Service.

"That's one of the key things everybody's hyped on and wants to know," said one Secret Service agent. "The FAA has procedures for notifying us if they see something."

DeConcini raises questions

On Capitol Hill, however, Sen. Dennis DeConcini, an Arizona Democrat, said after being briefed on the incident that neither the FAA nor the Secret Service had been able to produce anything in the way of written agreements or orders for use of an emergency line connecting the FAA and the Secret Service.

Even more important, Mr. DeConcini and his aides refuted the notion that an air traffic controller at National Airport or at the regional FAA command tower in Leesburg, Va., had spotted Mr. Corder's plan and failed to notify anyone.

A DeConcini spokesman, Bob Maynes, said that investigators had examined tape recordings of radar traffic and could see a small blip -- the Corder plane -- flying south toward the White House.

But apparently because traffic at National Airport is extremely light at that hour -- almost 2 a.m. -- no one was watching the screens at the time the incident occurred, Sen. DeConcini said.

"Obviously that needs to be corrected," he said.

One Department of Transportation official said that, because most commercial air traffic into National Airport ends by 11 p.m., only two controllers were on duty from 11 p.m. Sunday to 7 a.m. Monday.

Several officials suggested that the level of staffing in the tower at National Airport -- and the specific responsibilities those controllers have in the area of White House security -- would now become a key focus of the interagency report being due on Treasury Secretary Lloyd M. Bentsen's desk in 90 days.

But it was clear that the Secret Service doesn't want to wait that to begin to rehabilitate its image.

The agency put forward a different spokesman yesterday after Carl Meyer, the usual spokesman, raised eyebrows on Monday when he said that agents on duty had just "enough time to run for cover" before the plane crashed.

In addition, the Secret Service attempted to shut down other possible outlets for official information about the crash and the ensuing investigation. Secret Service officials admitted that they had insisted that other federal agencies, such as the FAA, refer all queries back to the Secret Service.

At the same time, investigators continued to focus on Mr. Corder, who had a history of substance abuse.

An autopsy determined that the amount of alcohol in his bloodstream -- .045 percent -- was roughly equivalent to a single glass of beer. And the amount of cocaine in his body was described by a Secret Service agent as "minor."

Williard Goode, hot line and prevention coordinator for the Washington Area Council on Alcoholism and Drug Abuse, said that if Mr. Corder had smoked crack cocaine it could last in his bloodstream for up to 72 hours.

Asked if the amounts of drugs and alcohol in Mr. Corder's system would impair his judgment, Mr. Goode said, "Maybe somewhat."

President feels safe

Meanwhile, at the White House, President Clinton made a point of demonstrating public faith in the Secret Service just one day after a plane soared in over the White House fence and came to rest just two floors below the first family's sleeping quarters.

The president went for his morning jog on one of his usual routes along the Potomac River early yesterday. Later, when asked at C bill-signing ceremony on the South Lawn if he felt safe in the White House, the president replied, "Yes."

Nevertheless, yesterday the fence bordering the South Lawn of the White House became a magnet for tourists and locals curious about the crash. They peered between the black iron bars, stretching on their toes to get a better look. Mostly they were disappointed: Their view of the crash site, now cleared of plane debris, was blocked by trees and a bed of tall red flowers.

Many wondered aloud how an aircraft could get perilously close to the presidential quarters -- and what could happen if another pilot tried it.

"If a small plane can get in, imagine what a jet would do," observed Jeff Jackson, 37, of Columbia, a meat salesman who took time off to visit the crash site.

"You think this wouldn't be able to happen," said Greg Kennedy, 26. "I thought they had some kind of radar [in the White House]. I thought if they got close, they'd shoot them down."

Looking across the lawn to the White House, visitors could see uniformed Secret Service officials on the roof, standing armed guard under blue skies.

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