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8 Country Band Members Die in S.D. Air Crash

March 17, 1991|MICHAEL GRANBERRY and H.G. REZA | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

SAN DIEGO — A business jet carrying a two-person crew and eight members of country singer Reba McEntire's band crashed into a mountain near the U.S.-Mexico border Saturday morning, killing all 10 people aboard.

The twin-engine Hawker Siddeley took off about 1:45 a.m. from Brown Field, a municipal airstrip near the international border, and crashed a few minutes later into Otay Mountain, which rises to 3,572 feet about 10 miles east of the airport, officials for the Federal Aviation Administration said.

Investigators said body parts and wreckage from the crash were strewn over the snow-capped south side of the mountain. The plane was en route to Amarillo, Tex., for refueling and then to Fort Wayne, Ind., where McEntire had a concert scheduled Saturday night.

McEntire, who had performed with the band on Friday evening in a private concert in San Diego for IBM executives, was not aboard the plane. The popular singer, named female vocalist of the year four times by the Country Music Assn., and her husband, Narvel Blackstock, who is also her manager, flew out in another plane later on Saturday, said McEntire's spokeswoman, Trisha McClanahan.

"She was very close to all of them. Some of them had been with her for years. Reba is totally devastated by this. It's like losing part of your family. Right now she just wants to get back to Nashville," said Jennifer Bohler(), another McEntire spokeswoman.

McClanahan said the doomed jet was the first of two planes carrying McEntire's entourage to take off from Brown Field.

"The planes took off three minutes apart," McClanahan said. "The plane that crashed took off first. The pilot of the second plane didn't see anything. They just knew that they had lost radio contact with the other. They continued flying and were diverted to Nashville."

McEntire publicist Jenny Bohler said late Saturday that the second plane made a refueling stop in Memphis, where the crew learned of the crash for the first time.

Bohler said that McEntire's pilot was at Brown Field when the crash occurred and reported it almost immediately to the singer, who was staying overnight in San Diego. Bohler said that McEntire departed from Lindbergh Field between 1 p.m. and 2 p.m. on Saturday.

The ill-fated plane was chartered from Prestige Touring in Dallas. An official familiar with the company said the crew, Capt. Don Holms and first officer Chris Hollinger, were experienced pilots. Officials with Prestige Touring declined comment.

George D. Dickason, an investigator with the San Diego County Medical Examiner, said the "extensive trauma" to the victims was so severe that none of the 10 bodies could be immediately identified.

The aircraft was being flown visually, without clearance or guidance from an air traffic control tower, said Elly Brekke, a spokeswoman for the FAA.

Brekke noted, however, that such a procedure was not unusual, and that the weather, which offered 10 miles of visibility at Brown Field, was not considered prohibitive for flying. Campers at a trailer park near the site, however, said that heavy wind and rain had pelted the area throughout the morning.

"When the pilot became airborne, he did call on the radio to the FAA air traffic controller in San Diego, to file his flight plan," Brekke said. "The controller was in the process of entering that information into the computer when communication with the aircraft was lost."

Brekke said the controller then attempted several times to call the pilot on the radio, but to no avail. She said that, shortly after 1:45 a.m., a Navy controller at North Island Naval Air Station in Coronado phoned the FAA, saying he had seen "a flashing light" and an explosion in the vicinity of Otay Mountain.

The U.S. Border Patrol confirmed the crash at 2:14 a.m., and minutes later more than 35 sheriff's deputies were swarming over the mountaintop to secure the scene for investigators.

Medical examiner Dickason said the mountaintop was "extremely windy" throughout Saturday's investigation, and campers at the Thousand Trails trailer park, near the base of Otay Mountain, said weather conditions around the time of the crash were, in the words of one man, "horrific."

"It rained hard all night, until early in the morning," said Judy Torum, whose family was staying in the trailer park, in the 14000 block of Otay Lakes Road, several miles east of Chula Vista. "I heard something during the night, but I thought it was lightning. Most of us didn't know what happened until (the morning)."

Brown Field is a general aviation airport that has long been considered a possible replacement for Lindbergh Field in downtown San Diego. Some supporters of an airport at Brown Field favor building a binational airport, with a combined U.S.-Mexico air traffic arrangement.

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