Commuter Plane Crashes Near Detroit; 29 Die

TIMES STAFF WRITER

A commuter aircraft en route from Cincinnati in a snowstorm crashed Thursday about 18 miles southwest of Detroit Metro Airport, erupting in a fireball and killing all 29 people aboard.

The twin-engine turboprop Embraer 120, operated by regional carrier Comair, was on approach for landing at Detroit about 3:50 p.m. CST when eyewitnesses said it listed to the right and then nose-dived into the ground.

The impact was so severe that it left a small crater. The plane burst into flames and broke apart, scattering debris for several hundred yards across a snow-covered cornfield in rural Ida, Mich.

"I seen it hit the ground," said Shaun Gilb, who was playing with his dog in his backyard before the crash. "A mushroom cloud came up about 200 feet and it was followed by a big ball of fire."

Tom Marino, who lives about a half a mile from the crash site, said the plane sounded loud as it passed overhead. "Then there was a real loud boom and a big vibration that shook the ground," he said.

Those arriving on the scene within minutes said the plane had disintegrated and the fire was so intense that there was no possibility of survivors. Local hospitals were quickly taken off the alert for crash victims.

As darkness fell in late afternoon, rescue workers began recovering and identifying bodies with flashlights. The somber job was made more difficult by a driving snow and subfreezing temperatures.

The names of the victims of Flight 3272 were being withheld until bodies could be identified and relatives notified. Some friends and relatives waiting for the plane's arrival were told of the tragedy by airline personnel in Detroit.

The friends and relatives were provided with grief counseling.

The National Transportation Safety Board dispatched an 11-member investigation team from Washington that was expected to arrive late Thurday night and begin a probe of the crash's cause today.

The first task would be recovery of the aircraft's black boxes. The flight data recorder can provide vital information on the plane's controls, altitude and flight path, while the cockpit voice recorder can provide key communications and other data.

In a preliminary statement, the Federal Aviation Administration said that the plane had routine contact with air traffic controllers in Detroit, who were unaware of trouble until the craft disappeared from the radar screen.

"The pilot did not alert air traffic controllers of any unusual circumstances," said Dan Zuchert, an FAA spokesman in Chicago.

Once the black boxes are secure, the investigators will look into a variety of other factors that could be linked to the crash. They include things like the plane's maintenance records, structural integrity, human error and weather.

The investigators also will talk to eyewitnesses.

One witness, Bob Connor, said he looked up when he heard the low-flying plane. "It was rolling, clockwise," he said, "and then when it was just 200 feet in the air, it just nose-dived straight down."

Because the crash occurred in bad weather, investigators will look closely at meteorological factors. At the time of the crash, the FAA said visibility was about 1.5 miles and winds were light. But up to six inches of snow fell Thursday, along with freezing rain. Winds blew at 30 mph.

At a brief news conference near the Cincinnati-Northern Kentucky Airport, Comair officials confirmed that 26 passengers and three crew members had been killed in the crash. Comair, the nation's second largest regional airline, provides connector flights for Delta Air Lines.

Charles Curran, Comair senior vice president, said that the plane had been acquired new from its Brazilian manufacturer in 1992 and had passed a major maintenance inspection in late November.

"It did not have any maintenance irregularities," he said.

The Embraer 120 is popular among U.S. commuter airlines. There are about 300 in use, most in the United States. The aircraft can carry 30 passengers more than 800 miles.

This was its fourth fatal crash in the past five years.

One killed former Sen. John Tower of Texas on April 5, 1991, in Brunswick, Ga. Also among the 23 people who died in that crash were Tower's daughter, Marion, and astronaut Manley "Sonny" Carter Jr.

Investigators discovered a malfunction in the propeller pitch control and a worn part in a propeller control system on the left engine. Propellers either refused to change pitch or did so independently. The Federal Aviation Administration ordered commuter airlines to inspect planes with similar propellers.

Another crash of an Embraer 120 five months later killed all 14 people aboard.

That plane fell into a cornfield about 75 miles southwest of Houston in clear and calm weather. The aircraft had begun its descent to Houston Intercontinental Airport when it disappeared from radar screens. The pilot had been in regular contact with air traffic controllers but did not report any difficulties.

Investigators blamed missing screws in the horizontal stabilizer bar on the tail of the plane.

The third previous Embraer 120 crash with fatalities happened in west Georgia, about 40 miles from Atlanta, on Aug. 21, 1995. Ten people died after a plane fell into a hayfield after taking off from Atlanta's Hartsfield International Airport.

The pilot reported engine problems and survivors said they could see the left engine begin to come apart. One said he watched as a metal band holding the propeller flew off and metal peeled away from the engine.

Four feet of propeller blade snapped off, investigators said, and the engine cowling began to disintegrate. Fuel sprayed out.

The plane broke apart and burned on impact.

Investigators blamed a crack in the propeller. The FAA ordered immediate inspections of 13,000 propeller blades on 1,500 aircraft. Three hundred seventy propellers were replaced.

Nineteen were on Embraer 120s.

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Past Embraer 120 Crashes

* April 5, 1991: Former Sen. John Tower and NASA astronaut Manley "Sonny" Carter Jr. are among 23 killed in the crash of an Atlantic Southeast Airlines flight near Brunswick, Ga. No one survived.

* Sept. 11, 1991: A Continental Express flight en route from Laredo, Texas, nose-dives into a field west of Houston, killing all 14 aboard. The crash was blamed on missing screws in the tail's horizontal stabilizer bar.

* Aug. 21, 1995: Ten are killed in the crash of an Atlantic Southeast Airlines flight in a hayfield near Carrollton, Ga., when a blade breaks off the left engine. Nineteen people survived.

Source: Associated Press

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