WASHINGTON — The airplane crash that killed singer Rick Nelson and six others was caused by a fire that started in the cabin but apparently was not ignited by passengers using drugs, National Transportation Safety Board investigators said Thursday after an 18-month probe.
Federal investigators said they could not determine conclusively the cause of the blaze, which filled the cabin and cockpit with smoke, but added that a likely source was a heater that reportedly had caused problems during the flight.
Although toxicology tests found traces of cocaine in the bodies of several passengers, including Nelson, investigators said that they had found no evidence of drug use during the flight or drug-related paraphernalia after the crash. Early in the inquiry, investigators had speculated that the "free-basing" of cocaine, which involves heating the drug with a flame, might have been a possible cause of the fire.
Crew Members Survived
The private DC-3 crashed in a field near De Kalb, Tex., on Dec. 31, 1985, as it was carrying Nelson, his fiancee and five members of his Stone Canyon Band from Guntersville, Ala., to a New Year's Eve show in Dallas. Only the two crew members survived.
The plane plummeted as the pilot and co-pilot desperately tried to find an airfield for an emergency landing but failed as dense smoke left them unable to see out the cockpit windshield.
An examination of the wreckage found extensive fire damage in the rear of the cabin. Although investigators could not determine whether the heater had caused the blaze, "there is no doubt that the fire did originate in the area of the heater," the safety board report said.
Federal investigators said that, in reconstructing the crash, they were forced to rely on the accounts of pilot Bradley Rank, 34, and co-pilot Kenneth Ferguson, 46, who provided conflicting statements on crucial points.
Heater 'Acted Up'
According to the accident report, Ferguson said the cabin heater began to "act up" after the plane took off. Ferguson said that, when a warning light for the heater came on in the cockpit, the crew would turn the heater off, wait for a while and then turn the heater back on again.
According to Ferguson, Rank went to the back of the plane several times to see if he could get the heater to function correctly and repeatedly told Ferguson to turn the heater back on.
"One of the times I refused to turn it on," Ferguson said, adding that "I was getting nervous. I didn't think that we should be messing with that heater en route."
Later, smoke began billowing from the cabin. The crewmen attempted to navigate by leaning out a cockpit window but still could not see, and the plane crashed.
Feared an Explosion
After impact, Ferguson said, he and Rank climbed out of the aircraft, and, after getting no response to shouts into the cabin, moved away from the plane, fearing an explosion.
He said Rank told him: "Don't tell anyone about the heater, don't tell anyone about the heater."
Rank, in his testimony, did not mention in-flight problems with the heater.
Rank said he was checking on the passengers when he noticed smoke in the middle of the cabin, where Nelson and his fiancee, Helen Blair, 29, were sitting.
Rank said he then went to the rear of the plane to check the heater, saw no smoke and found the unit cool to his touch. After activating an automatic fire extinguisher and opening the cabin's fresh air inlets, Rank said, he returned to the cockpit, where Ferguson already was asking air traffic controllers for directions to the nearest airfields.
Although unable to reconcile the accounts, the safety board did criticize Rank for failing to follow the in-flight fire checklist when the smoke was detected, for opening the fresh air vents, which should have remained closed, for failing to direct the passengers to use supplemental oxygen and for not attempting to fight the fire with a hand-held cockpit fire extinguisher.
The board said that, although proper procedures might not have prevented the crash, "they would have enhanced the potential for survival of the passengers."
Nelson, 45, and the other passengers died of burns and smoke inhalation. Killed in addition to the singer and his fiancee were Andy Chapin, 30; Rick Intveld, 23; Bobby Neal, 38; Clark Russell, 35; and Patrick Woodward, 35. A number of lawsuits stemming from the accident are pending in Texas and California.
Nelson purchased the DC-3 on May 2, 1985, from Century Equipment Co. in Los Angeles to shuttle the band between engagements.