8 Country Band Members Die in S.D. Air Crash

TIMES STAFF WRITERS

A business jet carrying a two-person crew and eight members of country singer Reba McEntire's band crashed into a mountain near the U.S.-Mexico border Saturday morning, killing all 10 people aboard.

The twin-engine Hawker Siddeley took off about 1:45 a.m. from Brown Field, a municipal airstrip near the international border, and crashed a few minutes later into Otay Mountain, which rises to 3,572 feet about 10 miles east of the airport, officials for the Federal Aviation Administration said.

Investigators said body parts and wreckage from the crash were strewn over the snow-capped south side of the mountain. The plane was en route to Amarillo, Tex., for refueling and then to Fort Wayne, Ind., where McEntire had a concert scheduled Saturday night.

McEntire, who had performed with the band on Friday evening in a private concert in San Diego for IBM executives, was not aboard the plane. The popular singer, named female vocalist of the year four times by the Country Music Assn., and her husband, Narvel Blackstock, who is also her manager, flew out in another plane later on Saturday, said McEntire's spokeswoman, Trisha McClanahan.

"She was very close to all of them. Some of them had been with her for years. Reba is totally devastated by this. It's like losing part of your family. Right now she just wants to get back to Nashville," said Jennifer Bohler(), another McEntire spokeswoman.

McClanahan said the doomed jet was the first of two planes carrying McEntire's entourage to take off from Brown Field.

"The planes took off three minutes apart," McClanahan said. "The plane that crashed took off first. The pilot of the second plane didn't see anything. They just knew that they had lost radio contact with the other. They continued flying and were diverted to Nashville."

McEntire publicist Jenny Bohler said late Saturday that the second plane made a refueling stop in Memphis, where the crew learned of the crash for the first time.

Bohler said that McEntire's pilot was at Brown Field when the crash occurred and reported it almost immediately to the singer, who was staying overnight in San Diego. Bohler said that McEntire departed from Lindbergh Field between 1 p.m. and 2 p.m. on Saturday.

The ill-fated plane was chartered from Prestige Touring in Dallas. An official familiar with the company said the crew, Capt. Don Holms and first officer Chris Hollinger, were experienced pilots. Officials with Prestige Touring declined comment.

George D. Dickason, an investigator with the San Diego County Medical Examiner, said the "extensive trauma" to the victims was so severe that none of the 10 bodies could be immediately identified.

The aircraft was being flown visually, without clearance or guidance from an air traffic control tower, said Elly Brekke, a spokeswoman for the FAA.

Brekke noted, however, that such a procedure was not unusual, and that the weather, which offered 10 miles of visibility at Brown Field, was not considered prohibitive for flying. Campers at a trailer park near the site, however, said that heavy wind and rain had pelted the area throughout the morning.

"When the pilot became airborne, he did call on the radio to the FAA air traffic controller in San Diego, to file his flight plan," Brekke said. "The controller was in the process of entering that information into the computer when communication with the aircraft was lost."

Brekke said the controller then attempted several times to call the pilot on the radio, but to no avail. She said that, shortly after 1:45 a.m., a Navy controller at North Island Naval Air Station in Coronado phoned the FAA, saying he had seen "a flashing light" and an explosion in the vicinity of Otay Mountain.

The U.S. Border Patrol confirmed the crash at 2:14 a.m., and minutes later more than 35 sheriff's deputies were swarming over the mountaintop to secure the scene for investigators.

Medical examiner Dickason said the mountaintop was "extremely windy" throughout Saturday's investigation, and campers at the Thousand Trails trailer park, near the base of Otay Mountain, said weather conditions around the time of the crash were, in the words of one man, "horrific."

"It rained hard all night, until early in the morning," said Judy Torum, whose family was staying in the trailer park, in the 14000 block of Otay Lakes Road, several miles east of Chula Vista. "I heard something during the night, but I thought it was lightning. Most of us didn't know what happened until (the morning)."

Brown Field is a general aviation airport that has long been considered a possible replacement for Lindbergh Field in downtown San Diego. Some supporters of an airport at Brown Field favor building a binational airport, with a combined U.S.-Mexico air traffic arrangement.

However, Otay Mountain is noted by critics of the plan as an obstacle to operating a safe airport for passenger jets. A study released in February of last year warned that mountains to the east and northeast of the airport would pose problems for normal takeoffs and landings.

Saturday's was the second-worst private plane crash in San Diego County since 1979, investigators said. The first occurred in the Otay Mesa area near Brown Field.

Wreckage indicated that the wing of the British-made jet creased the side of the mountain, causing the plane to break apart, dump its fuel and then cartwheel in a northerly direction, said Jeff Rich with the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB).

Investigators said the crash site was near a large telecommunications complex, which feeds radio transmissions to law-enforcement agencies.

Michael Farley, assistant airport operator at Brown Field, said no navigation aids are available on nearby mountains to guide planes taking off or landing at the airport. But the facility does have a radar transmitter situated 3 miles north of the field to direct pilots, he said.

"It's not practical to put lights on top of every mountain," he said.

Rich of the transportation safety board said that learning exactly what happened would be difficult because the plane had no flight-data recorder. He said the twin-engine jet has a capacity for two crew members and eight passengers, the number on board at the time of impact. Rich said FAA regulations that take effect in September will require such aircraft to carry the recorders.

At the scene itself, debris from the aircraft lay on roadways that ring the mountaintop. Part of the fuselage from one of two Rolls-Royce engines was left virtually intact. Nearby was a book titled "The Book of Balance and Harmony," by Thomas Cleary, and several cans of shaving cream and hair spray.

McEntire's publicist, Jenny Bohler, said that band member Anthony Saputo, who died in the crash, had been reading Cleary's book during a recent concert stop in Alaska.

Lying near one piece of wreckage was a broken compact disc titled "Family Style" by the Vaughan Brothers. Stevie Ray Vaughan, one of two singers featured on the album, died in a helicopter crash in Wisconsin last August. "Family Style" was released after Vaughan's death.

Vaughan and the members of McEntire's band are the latest in a long line of pop musicians to have died in aviation disasters. The list includes Buddy Holly, Jim Croce, Rick Nelson, J.P (The Big Bopper) Richardson and Ritchie Valens, all of whom died in small-aircraft crashes, en route from one concert appearance to the next.

Sgt. Glenn Revell, a spokesman for the San Diego County's Sheriff's Department, released the names of the band members as follows:

Chris Austin; Paula Evans; Terry Jackson; Kirk Cappello; Michael Thomas; Anthony Saputo; Joey Cigainero, and tour manager Jim Hammon.

McEntire's spokeswoman said all the band members were from Nashville.

The red-haired McEntire, who speaks with a thick Southern accent, was born in McAlester, Okla., but now lives in Nashville, where, publicist Bohler noted, she recorded a Grammy Award-winning single in 1987 titled "Whoever's in New England."

Bohler said that all members of the band, except for its newest member, Chris Austin, were featured on the singer's 1989 album, "Reba McEntire Live." Kirk Cappello was the only victim of Saturday's crash featured on McEntire's most recent studio album, "Rumor Has It," released in 1990.

Cappello's parents, Edna and Phillip Cappello, said from their home in Florissant, Mo., Saturday night that music "meant everything" to their son, who is survived as well by two sisters.

"Music was the only thing he wanted to do from the time he was a kid," Phillip Cappello said. "He was like all kids, listening to the radio and watching the rock groups."

Cappello said that his son was about to turn 29 and that each of the other victims were roughly the same age. Kirk Cappello was a keyboard player who had modeled himself, his father said, after Keith Emerson of the group Emerson, Lake & Palmer. Cappello had performed with country singer Barbara Mandrell for five years before joining McEntire's band, his father said.

Reba McEntire canceled her concert scheduled Saturday night at Fort Wayne, and another scheduled today in Evansville, Ind., said McClanahan, the singer's spokeswoman. However, McEntire is expected to appear at the Academy Awards presentation on March 25, where she will sing "I'm Checkin' Out," which was sung by Meryl Streep in the movie "Postcards from the Edge."

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