Plane crashes just after takeoff in N.C., killing all 21 aboard

US Airways Flight 5481 bound for Greenville, S.C.

January 09, 2003|By KNIGHT RIDDER/TRIBUNE

CHARLOTTE, N.C. - A US Airways commuter plane corkscrewed into the earth outside a hangar at Charlotte/Douglas International Airport yesterday, exploding in a fireball that killed all 21 aboard.

The plane, Flight 5481, bound for Greenville-Spartanburg, S.C., was full with 19 passengers and two pilots aboard when it crashed at 8:49 a.m., missing by less than 50 yards a US Airways maintenance base with hundreds of workers.

Two Baltimore-area residents were among the passengers: Mark Congdon, a Glenwood resident and the father of four children and Paul Stidham, 46, of Dayton, who was traveling on business for his employer, W.R. Grace of Columbia.

The cause of the crash was unknown, but authorities said there was a truncated conversation between the tower and the pilot after takeoff. Witnesses said the aircraft seemed to struggle from the start.

"The plane was climbing too steep," said Benjamin Witkege, who was arriving at the airport with his girlfriend, Erin Murphy.

"I told her, `It looks like that plane is not doing right,'" said Witkege, of Roanoke, Va. They watched in horror as the plane arched into a twisting dive.

"I was sick to my stomach," said Murphy.

Brett Sartain, driving to work near the airport, said the aircraft seemed to struggle aloft.

"I saw the plane sort of banking right, it dropped, it tried to level off. And right after it tried to level off, it did a nose dive," said Sartain, of York, S.C.

Vanpool coordinator Bart Hargis was near the hangar where US Airways overhauls jetliners. He heard the whine of engines and glanced up.

"It looked like the pilot was trying to correct," said Hargis. "The plane was tilted in the air, one wing up and one wing down. When he revved the engine, it twisted. Then the roar stopped and I heard this `Pow!'"

It hit with a gut-wrenching thunderclap, said Gary Barrier, who operates an air charter firm.

"We heard the airplane taking off and then we heard the noise - the boom - and that was it," Barrier said. "It's just a sickening feeling."

About 400 workers scrambled to safety from the hangar, avoiding a torrent of burning aviation fuel.

Black smoke hung like a ragged cornice over the office spires of downtown Charlotte as the wreckage burned, fed by fuel from the aircraft's 665-gallon tanks.

When firefighters doused the inferno minutes later, the plane - a Beech 1900D - lay in a heap of charred metal, bodies strewn in the shredded fuselage, said fire chief Luther Fincher. A single blade from one of the plane's twin prop engines lay nearby.

Officials at Carolinas Medical Center in Charlotte activated its disaster plan - calling in off-duty surgeons and nurses - but were soon told by Medic officers that no survivors were expected, said Scott White, hospital spokesman.

"There is no indication, preliminarily, that this is a terrorist incident," said Chris Swecker of the FBI, who said the agency will assist in the investigation.

The flight data recorder and the cockpit voice recorder were recovered and sent to a National Transportation Safety Board laboratory in Washington, where they will be examined today.

The pilots were Capt. Katie Leslie and first officer Jonathan Gibbs, both of Charlotte.

The commuter flight leaves the Charlotte terminal at 8:30 a.m. weekdays and usually arrives at Greenville-Spartanburg Airport 45 minutes later. It is used mostly by business travelers or passengers from western South Carolina who connected on flights through Charlotte.

In Greenville, families and friends of those believed to be on the flight were briefed privately by airline personnel. Counseling was available for those who wanted it, said airport spokeswoman Rosylin Weston.

The Greenville airport has about 70 inbound flights a day, many connecting with the hub in Charlotte, she said.

The operator of the flight was Air Midwest, operating as US Airways Express, said Dave Castelveter, US Airways spokesman. Air Midwest is owned by Phoenix-based Mesa Air Group, one of the country's leading regional jet operators.

"Our hopes and prayers go out to the families of Flight 5481," said Chris Leak, a representative of Mesa.

Runways were closed for a time, disrupting flights at US Airways' largest hub. At least nine flights were canceled yesterday, including another morning flight to Greenville.

It was the first fatal accident of a commercial plane at Charlotte/Douglas since a USAir DC-9 crashed in July 1994, killing 37.

Airport chaplain Ben Wenning prayed yesterday with a half-dozen gate attendants and baggage handlers. He said he was struck by how the ground crew said everything seemed so normal about the flight: baggage went aboard swiftly, passengers seemed cheerful.

One employee told Wenning how the pilot waved at him and smiled as the plane pulled away from the terminal.

Wenning was joined at the airport by a half-dozen other chaplains, who set up a counseling area for relatives of victims.

US Airways baggage handler Debbie Wolfe, who has worked at the airport for 22 years, took solace at the airport's chapel.

"I just felt the need to pray," she said. "It just broke my heart for these folks."

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