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Aspen, CO, March 30, 2001 (AP by Steven K. Paulson)–Motorists were stunned to see a low-flying plane trying to land as snow fell at this posh ski resort, moments before the twin-engine jet crashed in flames, killing all 18 people aboard.
Investigators worked their way through a hillside littered with scorched wreckage Friday to recover the victims’ bodies.
The airport, whose mountainous setting can require planes to descend quickly, reopened just after dawn Friday. Officials parked buses along Colorado 82 to block the wreckage from the view of passing drivers.
The chartered Gulfstream III, which was coming from Burbank, Calif., rammed into the hillside Thursday night, then dove across a culvert and struck another bluff just short of the runway at Aspen-Pitkin County Airport.
Coroner’s officials began removing the bodies of the victims before dawn, but it could be two days before they are positively identified and relatives notified, Pitkin County Sheriff Bob Braudis said. When asked whether any celebrities were aboard the plane, Braudis said he did not recognize any of the passengers’ names on the flight manifest.
Two of the victims were identified as employees of KTTV-TV in Los Angeles, a Fox Television affiliate. The station said Mir Tukhi, an assignment editor, and Marisa Witham, a researcher, were on the plane. Neither was on the flight for business reasons, the station said.
Arnold Scott of the National Transportation Safety Board said the cockpit voice recorder was recovered Friday morning.
Witnesses traveling along the highway near the crash said they were startled to see the low-flying plane make its way toward the airport.
Greg Reszel, a tourist from Indiana, told KCNC-TV the plane was traveling so slowly he thought it was a helicopter. He said it lurched and appeared to stall. Even before that, he told CBS’ “The Early Show,” he thought the visibility was so poor because of falling snow that he told his father, “Man, I wouldn’t want to be trying to land that.”
Al Kassa, who was traveling on the same road, told KCNC the plane was traveling about 50 feet over his car when it passed and then crashed.
“The noise was just so loud,” he said. “And then I just saw it going straight into the ground at about a 30-degree angle, and then it just blew up. I’ve been in a state of shock for the last few hours.”
Said another witness, Ron Harding: “All of a sudden the plane came overhead and before anybody could say `that plane is really low,’ we heard a loud boom and saw a large fireball. We saw debris scattered down one hillside and up the other hillside.
“There was fire everyplace. It was just a terrible scene,” Harding told KCBS-TV in Los Angeles.
The plane’s crew was on an instrument landing but switched off shortly before the crash, telling the tower they had the runway in sight, Scott said. That was the last known communication with the jet; there was no distress call.
“So what difficulties they had on the approach, I really can’t answer,” Scott said.
The National Weather Service reported light snow in the area at the time of the crash. Visibility declined from 10 miles to less than two miles in about 20 minutes just before the crash, forecasters said.
The crash sparked a giant fireball, witnesses said. Two dead passengers could be seen still strapped to their seats and one was sprawled on a hillside amid the wreckage.
Fifteen passengers and three crew members were on board, said Allen Kenitzer, a Federal Aviation Administration spokesman in Seattle. All 18 bodies were recovered, authorities said.
Marc Foulkrod, president of Avjet Corp. in Burbank, Calif., which manages the jet for its owner, said Avjet caters to corporate clients and people in the entertainment industry but declined to say who was on the flight.
“We are in the process of notifying the families of these individuals,” Foulkrod said. “Our deepest and most heartfelt conceern goes out to all of the families.”
The debris showed the plane lost its tail when it hit a hillside about 20 feet high. It fell apart as it plunged across a 200-foot culvert between the hill and the airport, then slammed into another bluff about 500 yards short of the runway.
The 1981 Gulfstream is registered to Airborne Charter Inc., according to the Federal Aviation Administration.
Foulkrod, whose company manages the jet for Airborne Charter, said it left from the Burbank airport, made a stop at Los Angeles International Airport, and then headed to Aspen. He said the owner, whom he wouldn’t identify, was not on board.
The Los Angeles Times and Daily News of Los Angeles reported Friday that Airborne’s president is Hollywood producer Andrew Vajna, whose film credits include Sylvester Stallone’s “Rambo” movies,” Bruce Willis’ “Die Hard With a Vengeance” and Arnold Schwarzenegger’s “Total Recall.”
A man who answered the phone at Vajna’s Santa Monica home Thursday night declined to comment.
Surrounded by Rocky Mountains towering as much as 3,500 feet above its lone runway, the airport warns approaching pilots that “high rates of descent may be required due to terrain.” The airport, about 230 miles west of Denver, has an elevation of 7,815 feet.
Also known as Sardy Field, the airport usually is open from 7 a.m. to 11 p.m. The crash happened shortly after 7 p.m. ___
On the Net:
Aspen Airport: http://www.aspenairport.com
Copyright (c) 2000 The Associated Press