A business jet carrying a two-person crew and eight members of country singer Reba McEntire’s entourage crashed into a mountain near the U.S.-Mexico border Saturday morning, killing all 10 people on board.
The twin-engine Hawker Siddeley took off about 1:45 a.m. from Brown Field, a municipal airstrip in southern San Diego 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 with the Federal Aviation Administration said. Seven band members and McEntire’s tour manager were killed, as were the plane’s pilot and co-pilot.
Investigators said wreckage from the crash was strewn over the snow-capped south side of the mountain. The plane was en route to Amarillo, Tex., for refueling and then to Ft. Wayne, Ind., where McEntire had a concert scheduled Saturday night.
McEntire, who was not aboard the plane, had performed with the band Friday evening in San Diego in a private concert for IBM executives. The popular singer, named four times by the Country Music Assn. as female vocalist of the year, and her husband/manager, Narvel Blackstock, flew out later on another plane Saturday, said McEntire’s spokeswoman Trisha McClanahan. She heard about the crash before leaving San Diego.
“She was very close to all of them (the band members). Some of them had been with her for years,” said Jennifer Bohler, another McEntire spokeswoman. “Reba is totally devastated by this. It’s like losing part of your family. Right now she just wants to get back to Nashville.”
McClanahan said the 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.”
Bohler said band members on the second plane learned of the crash when they made a refueling stop in Memphis.
The plane that crashed was chartered from Prestige Touring in Dallas. An official familiar with the company said the crew, identified as Capt. Don Holms and First Officer Chris Hollinger, were experienced pilots. Officials with Prestige Touring declined to 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, which is investigating the crash along with the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB).
Brekke noted, however, that such a procedure is 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 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 made several unsuccessful attempts to call the pilot on the radio. She said that, shortly after 1:45 a.m., a Navy controller at North Island Naval Air Station in Coronado phoned the FAA, saying that 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.
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 cartwheel in a northerly direction, said Jeff Rich with the NTSB.
Rich said that learning exactly what happened would be difficult because the plane had no flight-data recorder. Rich said FAA regulations that take effect in September will require such aircraft to carry the recorders.
At the scene, debris from the aircraft lay on roadways that ring the mountaintop. Part of the cowling 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.
Sgt. Glenn Revell, a spokesman for the San Diego County’s Sheriff’s Department, released the names of the band members:
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.
McEntire canceled the concert scheduled Saturday at Ft. Wayne, and another scheduled today at Evansville, Ind., said McClanahan.