It probably was just a coincidence that a protected witness and two drug agents had inquired about reservations for a commuter flight that exploded and crashed 70 miles west of here, federal officials said Thursday.
A flurry of speculation was set off by reports that the three persons had nearly taken the flight. But FBI agents later discounted the possible drug connection or the likelihood that a bomb had caused Wednesday's crash, which carried 14 people to their deaths.
"This (marijuana) case is not a particularly large case and the fellow we're talking about is a rather insignificant fellow," Mark Dowd, an assistant U.S. attorney, said in squelching the reports.
Continental Express Flight 2574 took off from Laredo at 9 a.m. for a nonstop trip to Houston. Air traffic controllers said the cockpit crew reported no problems of any kind during the flight.
Witnesses said that shortly after 10 a.m. they heard an explosion that apparently ripped the left wing and engine from the Brazilian-built twin-engine turboprop. They said the mangled plane burst into flames and plunged into a cornfield.
National Transportation Safety Board investigators said Thursday that the two "black box" recorders recovered from the wreckage appeared to be in "fairly good condition" and should offer important clues as to what caused the crash.
One of the recorders is believed to contain the last minutes of conversation between the pilot, Brad Patridge, 29, of Kingwood, Tex., and the co-pilot, Clint Rodosovich, 43, of Houston. The other recorder should give a detailed reading of the plane's attitude and control settings.
The Federal Aviation Administration said Thursday that the 3-year-old plane had undergone only a routine number of repairs during its 7,229 hours of flight. Service records showed that an engine and propeller were replaced on two occasions after mid-flight malfunctions and the plane was once forced to make an emergency landing after an engine problem.
Attention focused briefly on the FBI's investigation of possible criminal activity surrounding the crash when it was learned that Georgia Bureau of Investigation agent Fred Stevens, Georgia Drug Enforcement Agency agent David Wolff and the unidentified witness they were protecting had inquired about reservations for Flight 2574.
Officials said that they had flown to Laredo from Atlanta last Sunday so the witness could testify.
Malnic reported from Los Angeles and Hart from Houston.