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Possibility of Cocaine-Related Fire Probed in Nelson Plane Crash

January 15, 1986|From the Washington Post

WASHINGTON — Federal officials are investigating the possibility that a form of cocaine use involving fire caused the New Year's Eve plane crash in Texas that killed rock 'n' roll star Rick Nelson and six others, sources close to the investigation said Tuesday.

Both the pilot and the co-pilot, who survived, have told investigators that they attempted to land the World War II-era Douglas DC-3 after fire started in the passenger cabin.

"He made a good landing," one source said. "Except for the fire, everyone would have survived."

The sources said that preliminary toxicology reports indicate that Nelson's body contained a measurable level of unmetabolized cocaine. They stressed, however, that final written reports from two toxicology laboratories are pending.

One form of cocaine use, called "free-basing," requires mixing cocaine with flammable ether or ammonia. After the chemicals evaporate, the cocaine is usually smoked in a glass pipe held over a steady flame, often a cigarette lighter. One of the theories investigators are probing is that a free-base fire ignited something in the plane's cabin.

Court records in California cite cocaine use by Nelson as an issue in his 1981 divorce, sources said.

A broken fuel line was suspected early in the investigation as a source of the fire, but it was established later that the line broke on impact with the ground. The fire clearly started in the air, authorities said.

The official coroner's report shows "smoke inhalation and thermal burns" as the cause of each victim's death.

Memorial services for Nelson, who began his show business career in the 1950s on his family's highly popular television show, "The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet," were held last week at Forest Lawn Memorial Park in Hollywood. Nelson's body was cremated.

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