All 68 people aboard an American Eagle commuter flight apparently perished Monday when the plane, headed for Chicago through a downpour and gusty winds, crashed in a muddy field of soybean stubble. Flight 4184, a Super ATR-72 twin engine high-wing turboprop, went down about 30 miles south of Gary, Ind., at approximately 4 p.m. CST. Winds at Gary were blowing up to 49 m.p.h. at the time, according to the National Weather Service.
"At this point, we've not been able to find any survivors," said Sgt. Jerry Parker of the Indiana State Police. About 100 emergency workers combed the scene for signs of life until cold weather and downpours forced a halt to the search after midnight.
The plane's flight schedule called for it to leave Indianapolis at 2:10 p.m. CST and arrive at Chicago's O'Hare airport at 3:15 p.m. The plane was coming in about 45 minutes late because it had been delayed on takeoff by heavy traffic at O'Hare. American Eagle spokesman Patrick Henry said the plane had been circling in a holding pattern, waiting to begin its descent.
At 4 p.m., as the airplane descended from 10,000 to 8,000 feet, it disappeared from radar screens at O'Hare.
Ken Reeves, senior meteorologist for Accu-Weather, a private forecasting company based in State College, Pa., said there was a "strong wind shear between 7,000 and 9,000 feet in the vicinity of the crash." A wind shear is a sudden shift in the direction and velocity of localized gusts that in its most severe form can strip from an aircraft's wings the ability to sustain lift.
All 64 seats on the aircraft, operated for American Eagle by Chicago-based Simmons Airlines, were filled with passengers. Forty-three of them were to make connecting flights in Chicago, Simmons spokesman Terry Hart said. Four crew members--two in the cockpit and two flight attendants--also were aboard.
The crew members were identified by the airline Monday night as pilot Orlando Aguiar, 29; co-pilot Jeffrey Gagliano, 30; and flight attendants Sandi Modaff, 27, and Amanda Holberg, 23. Holberg had become a flight attendant on Oct. 6. All were based in Chicago.
The pilot had logged 4,638 flight hours in his seven years with American Eagle and the co-pilot had 3,862 flight hours in his five years of service with the airline.
No names of passengers were released Monday night. One reason, Hart said, was that the airline was still checking its information. When an airline representative called one home expecting to notify next of kin, the man presumed dead answered the phone. Someone else was using his ticket.
Investigators from the National Transportation Safety Board were en route to the site from Chicago.
"At this time, it would be inappropriate to speculate on the cause of the accident," said Simmons president Peter Piper. He said Simmons will also conduct its own investigation of the crash.
Larry Midkiff said he was driving along a highway when he spotted a black puff of smoke and the plane banking sharply before it plunged to the ground.
"It didn't look like it had a left wing on it," Midkiff said. "It just looked like a black streak coming down."
Bob Stone, a hunter, said he heard the plane's engines just before the crash.
"I could hear a motor winding out and it sounded like thunder and then there was a crash and I didn't hear anything else," Stone said.
An unidentified farmer, interviewed on radio, said the falling plane "didn't sound like an airplane to me. It sounded like (a) dirt bike."
An eyewitness told WMAQ radio that the crash sounded like the smack of plywood striking the ground, followed by a roll of thunder.
Debris was scattered for about half a mile over a 40-acre field where Clarence Hanley harvested soybeans three weeks ago. His house is about half a mile from the crash site.
"My wife heard a noise and it scared her," Hanley said. When he heard "a small plane" had crashed on his field, "I pictured a two-passenger plane."
When he drove through the reddish brown muck to the field, which he leases from an Illinois woman, he was dismayed by the scene.
The plane "looked like it dropped down and disintegrated," Hanley said. "I couldn't see any big gouges or anything like that."
The mud was so sticky that farmer Robert Prohosky found himself giving a ride in his four-wheel-drive pickup truck to a state trooper whose squad car couldn't make it through. He'd seen the trooper waiting, frustrated, by the side of the road.
On the way, Prohosky glimpsed a large piece of tail section sitting by itself. About 500 feet from the main crash site, he saw "some chunks of metal and then I saw a brown sweater. It had an arm in it."
Closer to the scene of the impact, yards and yards of wet paper--insulation, Prohosky guessed--were strewn everywhere.
It was difficult to see, though, through the gray curtain of rain. There was little, too, to hear: just the water pelting the ground and the howling of the wind.
At the time of the crash, people at the scene said, the rain was dense and the light was dim.
Jasper County Sheriff Steve Reames said the Newton County Sheriff's Department had set up a command post near the crash site, at the Lincoln Township Fire Dept.
"We've had torrential rains all day, and right now there's such a downpour. They're almost unable to go out--we're talking open farm country," Reames said.
The conditions "will hamper us a lot," said Parker.
The fall of the American Eagle flight was the second major plane crash in seven weeks. A USAir jet crashed Sept. 8 in Aliquippa, Pa., on approach to Pittsburgh, killing all 132 aboard. That was the worst air crash in the United States in seven years.
American Eagle commuter planes have been involved in at least two other fatal crashes in the last seven years.
Five people were killed when an American Eagle plane crashed in a swamp at Mayaguez, Puerto Rico, during a heavy rainstorm on June 7, 1992.
American Eagle Flight 3378 crashed Feb. 19, 1988, in a wooded area about a mile away from the runway after departing in dense fog from the Raleigh-Durham, N.C. airport bound for Richmond, Va., killing all 12 people aboard.
American Eagle spokesman Tim Smith told CNN's "Larry King Live" that his airline voluntarily operates its entire fleet according to the regulations that applied to larger aircraft.
"We operate the entire American Eagle fleet of aircraft on . . . the same operating and safety standards as any other large jet airline, like American Airlines," Smith said.
American Eagle canceled plans to celebrate its 10th anniversary Tuesday. It had planned to unveil a specially decorated airplane at Dallas-Ft. Worth International Airport.
"All our concern is with the families of the victims of the accident," said Piper, the Simmons president.
Four small airlines operate under the name of American Eagle. The Eagle carriers have the same corporate parent as American Air line: AMR Corp. based in Ft. Worth.
Simmons serves American's Chicago and Dallas-Ft. Worth hubs. The other Eagle carriers are Los Angeles-based Wings West; Executive Airlines, which serves American's San Juan, Puerto Rico hub; and Nashville, Tenn.-based Flagship Airlines, which flies to many Eastern U.S. cities.
American Eagle expects to carry 12 million passengers this year. The network now serves 169 cities in 30 states and the District of Columbia, as well as 12 Caribbean islands and five in the Bahamas.
The fleet has 279 twin-engine, turboprop aircraft carrying 19 to 64 passengers. American Eagle owns 26 of the Super ATR aircraft, an airline spokesman said. The first were put into service in 1990.
The plane that crashed was delivered to American Eagle in March, a spokesman for the airline said. It had approximately 1,300 flight hours and 1,700 landings with the airline at the time of the crash.
The ATR is made by Avions de Transport Regional, a joint venture of Aerospatiale of France and Alenia of Italy.
Relatives of passengers may contact American Eagle toll free at 800-433-7300 or 800-245-0999.
Times researchers John Beckham in Chicago and D'Jamila Salem in Los Angeles contributed to this story. Pasternak reported from Chicago and Braun from Roselawn, Ind.