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Crash Site

October 17, 2000
By: David Klepper, Jill Johnson and Lauren Shepherd
Date: October 17, 2000

GOLDMAN TOWNSHIP -- Residents call the range of ragged hills and steep gulches east of town Snake Mountain. Thick brush and craggy bluffs make it a maze accessible only on foot.

It took 100 firefighters, highway troopers and medical technicians from 15 jurisdictions an hour Monday night just to find the wreckage of Gov. Mel Carnahan's plane, hidden in darkness and tangled scrub. Two firefighters sprained ankles in the difficult terrain.

They found debris scattered over hundreds of yards across a nearly vertical hillside. They also found partial human remains -- most likely those of Carnahan, 66; his son Randy, 44; and campaign adviser Chris Sifford, 37.

"It sounded like thunder," said De Faries (cq), who heard the explosion at 7:30 p.m. Monday from her home nearby. Eyewitnesses said the twin-engine Cessna 335 angled into a steep dive and exploded into a fireball.

"I don't think anybody knew it was the governor's plane," said Deputy Chief George Keller of the Goldman Fire Protection District. "The plane is in some nasty terrain. That's our biggest challenge."

The National Transportation Safety Board assumed command of the recovery mission soon after daybreak Tuesday. Until it and the Federal Aviation Administration have sorted and analyzed the wreckage, officials will not speculate as to the cause of the crash. An explanation, officials said, could be months away.

Randy Carnahan piloted the Cessna when it went down. According to the FAA, he had his second-class certificate, which qualified him to fly on instruments and at night. A second-class certificate is one level below a commercial pilot's license. He had been flying for 12 years and his medical approvals are up to date.

The Cessna was registered to Carnahan, Hickle and Calvert, a Rolla law firm where Randy Carnahan was partner. It was manufactured in 1980 and was bought by the firm on Oct. 10, 1998.

The Cessna 335 model has been involved in five crashes, two that resulted in serious injuries and one that resulted in two fatalities. Poor visibility caused the fatal crash.

The plane took off from Cahokia, Ill., and headed to a campaign rally in New Madrid when it disappeared from radar. The Associated Press reported that Sifford paged Roy Temple, executive director of the Missouri Democratic Party, shortly before the crash to say the Cessna had encountered lightning and was heading to Jefferson City or St. Louis.

Eyewitnesses and the National Weather Service in St. Louis reported light to moderate rain and light winds in the area at the time of the crash. No significant lightning was detected within 100 miles. While there was some cloud cover, John Frank, executive director of the Cessna Pilots Association, said this should not have been a problem for an experienced pilot such as Randy Carnahan.

At 4 a.m. Tuesday, dozens of police and firefighters waited for sunlight to resume the recovery of the plane and its three passengers. By that time, voices lowered to whispers, and Carnahan was discussed in the past tense.

"It was a truly horrific crash," said Jefferson County Sheriff Glen Boyer. "We're doing our job like we would for anyone."

But Carnahan wasn't just "anyone." Boyer knew the governor, and recently filmed a campaign endorsement for his Senate bid. Many officers had met the governor. Television news vans quickly lined up outside the Goldman firehouse, which served as a makeshift command center. Everyone drank luke-warm coffee. Talk about the Cardinals' disappointing play-off appearance suddenly seemed petty.

As morning wore on, authorities waited for federal agents before resuming their search. Squad cars guarded Rice Road, the only approach to the crash site, which lay 500 yards away. Elite blue-fatigued highway troopers arrived alongside vans carrying FBI evidence specialists and NTSB officials. The task force met in the firehouse, behind locked doors.

Others joined the recovery too, in whatever ways they could.

"We just wanted to come out to see if we could help," said St. Charles resident Randy Hummel. Hummel brought his dog Shannon in case she could be of use sniffing for any trace of the plane's occupants.

The mission was "the recovery and identification of the victims," according to Boyer. The human remains are being sent to the St. Louis County Medical Examiner. Even as the sun rose, there was no confirmation of Carnahan's death. But there wasn't much optimism in the men and women assembled in the Goldman firehouse.

A helicopter was used Tuesday to map the crash site. By the time the search was suspended at dark Tuesday, the largest piece of wreckage recovered was the plane's landing gear. The fragments were bagged and taken to the National Guard Armory at Festus for analysis. Federal agents will use computer simulations, chemical tests and experience to piece together the crash.

"They've done it with jet airplanes; they'll be able to do it with this plane," said Captain Ed Kemp of the Sheriff's Department. "It'll take some time. But we're not going anywhere."