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Leland Crash Site Found; All 16 Killed : Wreckage of Plane With Congressman Spotted in Ethiopia

August 14, 1989|MICHAEL A. HILTZIK | Times Staff Writer

ADDIS ABABA, Ethiopia — U.S. military helicopters on Sunday located the wreckage of a plane that crashed last Monday with Texas congressman Mickey Leland and 15 others aboard. Witnesses who visited the site said there were no survivors.

U.S. rescue and recovery teams said that the plane hit a mountain about 4,300 feet above sea level, having missed clearing the peak by about 300 feet. The crash site is about 75 miles east of the Fugnido refugee camp that Leland was flying to visit when the plane vanished in heavy weather last Monday.

"If they would have flown over that peak they would have been home free," said Rep. Gary L. Ackerman (D-N.Y.), a colleague of Leland's who has accompanied search crews for the last two days and was aboard the helicopter that first spotted the wreckage Sunday. Ackerman said that the plane appeared to have hit "nose first, right into the rocks; its two wings sheared off, its engines melted, its fuselage gone."

Wreckage Examined

Ackerman said that military paratroopers lowered themselves from his helicopter on ropes to examine the wreckage.

"They told us everyone had died instantaneously," Ackerman said.

The 44-year-old Leland, a Democrat, was making his sixth tour of refugee camps along the Ethiopia-Sudan border as chairman of the House Select Committee on Hunger, a panel he had helped to establish five years ago.

Also aboard the plane were Hugh Anderson Johnson Jr. and Patrice Yvonne Johnson, both aides to Leland (who were not related); Joyce Francine Williams, an aide to Rep. Ronald V. Dellums (D-Berkeley), and an expert on child nutrition; Y. Ivan Tillen, a New York businessman and friend of Leland's; Robert Woods, a political and economic officer at the American Embassy in Addis Ababa; Gladys Gilbert, a special projects officer for the mission of the U.S. Agency for International Development attached to the embassy; Thomas Worrick, the acting AID representative in Ethiopia, and Worrick's wife, Roberta.

7 Ethiopians Killed

Also on board were Debebe Agonofer, an Ethiopian agricultural economist with the AID mission, and six other Ethiopians, including the plane's crew of three.

Reaction to the news in the United States was one of sadness coupled with an outpouring of praise for Leland's work. A statement issued by President Bush said that "Mickey Leland and the other members of his traveling party, both Americans and Ethiopians, were engaged in a noble cause--trying to feed the hungry."

Dellums spoke of his staff aide who lost her life in the crash as "a close personal friend for over a decade" and said that everyone on the plane "shared a common commitment to helping the poor, the starving and the dispossessed in that war-torn, drought-stricken land."

"Their deaths are a collective loss to all humanity," Dellums said.

Discovery of the crash site ended what had been one of the most extensive American search and rescue operations ever conducted in a Third World country. By Sunday, 18 aircraft, including four American helicopters, two American C-130 airplanes and 12 Ethiopian aircraft, were involved in the search. Three more American helicopters were reported to be en route from Eglin Air Force Base in Florida when word of the discovery came.

The search on Sunday was hampered again by thunderstorms, poor visibility and other conditions that characterized many of the previous days of search.

"The terrain was fairly rugged and the weather conditions were bad getting there," said Capt. Clair M. Gilk, commander of one of the two helicopters that were the first to spot the wreckage.

Gilk said that the crash site, in a mountainous and heavily wooded region, is so remote and inaccessible that the nearest landing site for helicopters is half a mile away, a distance that he said could take as much as three hours to cover on foot.

Recovery Planned for Today

Air Force personnel were assigned to remain near the site Sunday night to keep it secure. Recovery of the remains of those aboard the plane, a twin-engine Twin Otter, was to commence at first light today.

Because of the site's inaccessibility, it could take at least two days to recover all of the bodies, according to Maj. Gen. James F. Record, who came here from Washington to oversee the search effort. Record arrived in Addis Ababa about 10 minutes after the first reports were received of the sighting of the crash site.

In Washington, a Pentagon spokesman, Navy Capt. Stan Bloyer, said that the remains of the Americans will probably be returned to the United States through Torrejon Air Base near Madrid, where the American armed forces maintains full mortuary facilities.

Dellums to Accompany Bodies

Dellums, House Majority Whip William H. Gray III (D-Pa.) and Republican Reps. Bill Emerson of Missouri and Jack Fields of Texas plan to fly to Addis Ababa to accompany the bodies back to the United States.

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