Leland Crash Site Found; All 16 Killed : Wreckage of Plane With Congressman Spotted in Ethiopia

Times Staff Writer

U.S. military helicopters on Sunday located the wreckage of a plane that crashed last Monday with Texas congressman Mickey Leland and 15 others aboard. Witnesses who visited the site said there were no survivors.

U.S. rescue and recovery teams said that the plane hit a mountain about 4,300 feet above sea level, having missed clearing the peak by about 300 feet. The crash site is about 75 miles east of the Fugnido refugee camp that Leland was flying to visit when the plane vanished in heavy weather last Monday.

"If they would have flown over that peak they would have been home free," said Rep. Gary L. Ackerman (D-N.Y.), a colleague of Leland's who has accompanied search crews for the last two days and was aboard the helicopter that first spotted the wreckage Sunday. Ackerman said that the plane appeared to have hit "nose first, right into the rocks; its two wings sheared off, its engines melted, its fuselage gone."

Wreckage Examined

Ackerman said that military paratroopers lowered themselves from his helicopter on ropes to examine the wreckage.

"They told us everyone had died instantaneously," Ackerman said.

The 44-year-old Leland, a Democrat, was making his sixth tour of refugee camps along the Ethiopia-Sudan border as chairman of the House Select Committee on Hunger, a panel he had helped to establish five years ago.

Also aboard the plane were Hugh Anderson Johnson Jr. and Patrice Yvonne Johnson, both aides to Leland (who were not related); Joyce Francine Williams, an aide to Rep. Ronald V. Dellums (D-Berkeley), and an expert on child nutrition; Y. Ivan Tillen, a New York businessman and friend of Leland's; Robert Woods, a political and economic officer at the American Embassy in Addis Ababa; Gladys Gilbert, a special projects officer for the mission of the U.S. Agency for International Development attached to the embassy; Thomas Worrick, the acting AID representative in Ethiopia, and Worrick's wife, Roberta.

7 Ethiopians Killed

Also on board were Debebe Agonofer, an Ethiopian agricultural economist with the AID mission, and six other Ethiopians, including the plane's crew of three.

Reaction to the news in the United States was one of sadness coupled with an outpouring of praise for Leland's work. A statement issued by President Bush said that "Mickey Leland and the other members of his traveling party, both Americans and Ethiopians, were engaged in a noble cause--trying to feed the hungry."

Dellums spoke of his staff aide who lost her life in the crash as "a close personal friend for over a decade" and said that everyone on the plane "shared a common commitment to helping the poor, the starving and the dispossessed in that war-torn, drought-stricken land."

"Their deaths are a collective loss to all humanity," Dellums said.

Discovery of the crash site ended what had been one of the most extensive American search and rescue operations ever conducted in a Third World country. By Sunday, 18 aircraft, including four American helicopters, two American C-130 airplanes and 12 Ethiopian aircraft, were involved in the search. Three more American helicopters were reported to be en route from Eglin Air Force Base in Florida when word of the discovery came.

The search on Sunday was hampered again by thunderstorms, poor visibility and other conditions that characterized many of the previous days of search.

"The terrain was fairly rugged and the weather conditions were bad getting there," said Capt. Clair M. Gilk, commander of one of the two helicopters that were the first to spot the wreckage.

Gilk said that the crash site, in a mountainous and heavily wooded region, is so remote and inaccessible that the nearest landing site for helicopters is half a mile away, a distance that he said could take as much as three hours to cover on foot.

Recovery Planned for Today

Air Force personnel were assigned to remain near the site Sunday night to keep it secure. Recovery of the remains of those aboard the plane, a twin-engine Twin Otter, was to commence at first light today.

Because of the site's inaccessibility, it could take at least two days to recover all of the bodies, according to Maj. Gen. James F. Record, who came here from Washington to oversee the search effort. Record arrived in Addis Ababa about 10 minutes after the first reports were received of the sighting of the crash site.

In Washington, a Pentagon spokesman, Navy Capt. Stan Bloyer, said that the remains of the Americans will probably be returned to the United States through Torrejon Air Base near Madrid, where the American armed forces maintains full mortuary facilities.

Dellums to Accompany Bodies

Dellums, House Majority Whip William H. Gray III (D-Pa.) and Republican Reps. Bill Emerson of Missouri and Jack Fields of Texas plan to fly to Addis Ababa to accompany the bodies back to the United States.

Discovery of the crash site came at about 1:15 p.m. local time Sunday. Ackerman said that the helicopter he was traveling in set down during the morning at an airstrip near the village of Dembi Dolo. There, the crew came upon a Roman Catholic missionary who told them that he had heard reports from local villagers that a plane had been heard nearby last week. Presently, the crew found an Ethiopian surveyor who said he could guide them to an area near where the plane had been heard. The surveyor was taken aboard, crew members said, but on their way toward their destination they spotted the crash site.

The location was described as very steep, with the plane resting on land that was pitched at an angle of about 60 degrees.

'Mostly Rocks and Brush'

Crew members described the site as "mostly rocks and brush" and indicated that the pilot of Leland's plane may have been trying to escape bad weather on Monday by following the pathway of a river flowing through a valley. Before the plane reached safety, it ran into the mountainside.

Rep. Alan Wheat (D-Mo.), who with Ackerman had been flying with search crews for the last two days, said he telephoned House Speaker Thomas S. Foley (D-Wash.) from Addis Ababa soon after the discovery was made. He said that Foley was "heartbroken" at the news.

The crash site was described by U.S. authorities as being about 20 nautical miles due east of the town of Gambela and 230 nautical miles west-southwest of Addis Ababa. It appeared to be near the village of Bure.

Area Had Been Covered

The area of the site had apparently been searched within the first two days after the crash by American aircraft using electronic devices in an attempt to detect an emergency signal from the downed craft. However, Sunday was the first day that helicopters flew over the area to make visual inspections.

The discovery, and indications that the passengers had died instantly, brought an end to charges that the American military response to the emergency was inadequate and tardy. Wheat, who was among those who had pressed Defense Department officials for the deployment of more aircraft in the search, said after the discovery Sunday: "We could have brought every plane in the world that we have, and it would not have made a difference."

President Bush, in his Sunday statement, said: "I have known, admired and worked with Mickey Leland for many years. His sense of compassion and desire to help those in need has aided millions of people from Houston to Addis Ababa. Our hearts go out to (his widow) and to the families and friends of the congressional staff members, State Department, Agency for International Development and Ethiopian officials who joined Mickey on his important mission and who died with him trying to carry it out."

'Best in Compassion'

Foley said that "in his search to look into the plight of the world's most desperate and hungry individuals, Rep. Leland represented the best in compassion that we as a nation possess."

Secretary of State James A. Baker III praised the congressman as "an outstanding statesman and humanitarian who died serving his country." Baker also thanked Ethiopia, a Soviet-allied country with which Washington has had strained relations for several years, for its "outstanding support" in the search for Leland's party.

Bush offered U.S. help to the Ethiopian government for its investigation into the crash of the plane.

Leland was a former Houston pharmacist who called the fight against hunger "my passion." He leaves a wife, Alison Walton Leland, and a 3-year-old son, Jarrett. Mrs. Leland is pregnant with the couple's second child.

First elected to Congress in 1978, he represented a mostly black and Hispanic section of Houston after the retirement of Rep. Barbara Jordan, a fellow Democrat.

Leland had no significant opposition for his congressional seat since he was first elected, winning his most recent election with 96% of the vote.

Times staff writer Melissa Healy, in Washington, contributed to this story.

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