Local News

Investigators Listen To Witness Accounts, Examine Evidence In Search For Answers After Fatal Crash

Posted Updated

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Thick clouds of black smoke and scores of frightened people on the ground were virtually all that was left to see when a commuter plane crashed and burned Wednesday, killing all 21 peopleaboard.

John Goglia of the National Transportation Safety Board said he believed the crash was an accident; there was no evidence of any terrorism or deliberate destruction to the plane.

That may have made news of the crash even harder to believe.

Sgt. David Marshall of the North Carolina Air National Guard was arriving for work Wednesday morning at the guard's headquarters at Charlotte/Douglas International Airport when he saw the doomed US Airways Express plane about 1,000 feet in the air, its nose nearly perpendicular to the ground.

Marshall, who holds a private pilot's license but does not flyfor the guard, watched in horror as the plane stalled.

"The nose came down, and it began to level off, and it went intoa second stall," he said Thursday as he arrived at the airport tooffer his account to investigators.

Flight 5481, a Beech 1900twin-engine turboprop, rolled to its right and dropped rapidly,clipping a corner of a hangar before it hit the ground.

Dee Addison heard the impact from her airport business about 500yards away. She ran outside to see panicked people running from amaintenance hangar as smoke billowed just outside.

"It was like a frenzy," Addison said. "At the time we didn't knowa plane had actually crashed. It didn't even look like a plane. Itwas totally demolished."

No one on the ground was injured, though a portion of the hangar- a maintenance facility for US Airways - was scorched andbattered. Layers of smoke poured from the wreckage, so thick "youcould taste it in your mouth," Addison said.

Said Yvonne Hepler, Addison's co-worker: "It just happened so quickly. It just disintegrated in a matter of seconds."

The plane, carrying 19 passengers and two crew members, took off to the south, then banked toward the airport and fell, airport director Jerry Orr said.

The cause of the crash - the deadliest U.S. air accident innearly 14 months - was still not clear late Wednesday or early Thursday.

Investigators recovered the flight data recorder and the cockpitvoice recorder and sent them to Washington, D.C., for analysis,said Goglia.

"Both were burned, but it does appear they were in decentshape," he said.

The voice recorder contained 34 minutes of tape, and its contentswere expected to be available to investigators around mid-day Thursday.

Goglia said the Beech 1900 has been in use since the 1960s as acommuter aircraft, "so we're going to have mishaps.

"But recently, in the last seven or eight years," he said, "it has provento be a very reliable airplane. So we can't immediately jump to the assumption that there's an airplane problem."

The NTSB brought 26 agents to help investigate. They walked therunway Wednesday and found some bolts and small pieces of debris. But they had not determined whether or not they belonged to the plane, Goglia said.

The pilot, identified by US Airways as Katie Leslie of Charlotte, contacted the tower at takeoff to report an emergency, said Greg Martin, a spokesman for the Federal AviationAdministration.

"However, (the transmission) was cut short, and the emergencywas never identified," he said.

The flight originated in Lynchburg, Va., and was bound for theGreenville-Spartanburg airport in Greer, S.C. Officials said noneof the passengers started their trip in Charlotte, though some hadconnected there from other flights.

The plane was a twin-engine Beech 1900 turboprop, US Airwayssaid. A maintenance alert for the type of plane was issued inAugust saying that attachment bolts for the vertical stabilizerwere found loose on one plane during a scheduled inspection.

The FAA has issued nearly two dozen airworthiness directives onthe 1900-D since 1994. The directives warn of problems that must berepaired if found in an aircraft.

A directive issued in November and scheduled to be effective intwo days warned that screws in the elevator balance weightattachment could come loose and interfere with the horizontalstabilizer.

The plane, built in 1996, was one of about 50 operated by MesaAir Lines, parent of Air Midwest, said US Airways. The plane hadbeen flown 15,000 hours and performed 21,000 takeoffs and landings.

FAA records showed the aircraft was involved in five in-flightincidents that the NTSB said could affect safe operations. Theaircraft also reported 10 lesser service difficulties.

The airline operates in the East and Midwest as US AirwaysExpress, in the West and Midwest as America West Express, in Denveras Frontier JetExpress, in New Mexico as Mesa Airlines and inKansas City with Midwest Airlines.

The crash came after a year in which there were no deathsaboard a passenger or cargo airliner in the United States. It wasthe third time in a decade that a year went by without a fatalityon a commercial plane, according to the FAA.

The last was the crash of American Airlines Flight 587 in NewYork on Nov. 12, 2001, in which 265 people died.

The last deadly crash involving a commercial airline inCharlotte was July 2, 1994. USAir Flight 1016, a DC-9, crashedduring a heavy thunderstorm on its way from Columbia, S.C., with 57people aboard. Thirty-seven were killed.

Copyright 2024 by WRAL.com and the Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.