Federal investigators waited Thursday to interview an injured pilot and co-pilot in an effort to learn what caused the northeast Texas plane crash that killed singer Rick Nelson, his fiancee, four members of his band and his soundman on New Year’s Eve.
Friends and relatives of some of the dead band members said the DC-3, reportedly more than 40 years old, had been beset by engine troubles for several months. The sister-in-law of the keyboard player said there was so much mechanical trouble that he had been planning to quit the band rather than fly on the plane.
With only a charred piece of wing, a jagged tail section and a broken chunk of the DC-3 nose recognizable in a wooded area outside the community of De Kalb, National Transportation Safety Board Chairman Jim Burnett said accounts by the surviving plane crew will be vital in the investigation.
Witnesses said the plane appeared to be on fire before it crashed late Tuesday afternoon as Nelson and his band were flying from Alabama to Dallas to perform at a New Year’s Eve concert. A helicopter pilot reported hearing pilot Brad Rank, 34, radio just before the crash that the DC-3 cockpit was filled with smoke.
But Burnett said late Thursday that the smoke-filled plane actually landed on all three landing gear and came to a full stop before being consumed by flames. He said investigators had not determined where or how the fire began.
In Dallas, an assistant to the Dallas County medical examiner said autopsies indicated that the victims died of smoke inhalation and burns.
Nelson’s body was taken from the medical examiner’s office Thursday afternoon for transport to California. Funeral arrangements are expected to be completed today after the return to Los Angeles of the singer’s brother, David, 49, who went to Texas soon after the crash.
Besides Nelson, 45, the crash killed Helen Blair, 27; Bobby Neal, 38; Patrick Woodward, 35; Andy Chapin, 30; Rick Intveld, 22, and Clark Russell, 35.
Rank, 34, the pilot, was reported in good condition Thursday at St. Michael’s Hospital in Texarkana, Ark., while the condition of co-pilot Kenneth Ferguson, 40, was listed as serious at the University of Arkansas Medical Center in Little Rock, where he is being treated for burns on his face, hands and back.
Chapin’s sister, Laurel Barzie of Los Angeles, said he talked about leaving the band because he was so worried about the DC-3 that Nelson used to fly from engagement to engagement.
She said Chapin sometimes wept before leaving on trips because of his fears about the aircraft.
Phyllis Neal, wife of another musician killed in the crash, reportedly begged him last Friday not to fly on the airplane because of engine problems.
“The plane wasn’t safe,” said Neal’s sister, Shirley Wood, of West Memphis, Ark. “Rick knew it wasn’t safe.”
David and Rick--then known as Ricky--virtually grew up on television before the millions who watched the popular TV series, “The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet.” The show chronicled the low-key lives of the real-life family of former bandleader Ozzie Nelson and one-time band singer Harriet Hilliard Nelson.
Harriet Nelson, 71, who moved to Laguna Beach after her husband died in 1975, was taking her younger son’s death hard, according to publicity man Oscar Arslanian, but “as well as could be expected.” He added: “The family is close.”
David Nelson, a producer of television commercials, has directed numerous television shows and several feature films.
Tracy Nelson, 22, the daughter of Rick Nelson and Kristen Harmon, from whom he was divorced several years ago, is a successful actress. Her brothers, twins Gunnar and Matthew, have their own rock band. Another son, Sam, is 11 years old.
Harriet Nelson asked that in lieu of flowers, donations be made to the Ozzie Nelson Cancer Fund at St. Joseph Medical Center in Burbank.