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Commuter Plane Crashes in Georgia; 3 Killed, 26 Injured : Tragedy: Twin-engine craft with 29 aboard breaks into three pieces upon impact in hay field and bursts into flames. Ten are critically hurt.

August 22, 1995|ERIC HARRISON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

BOWDON, Ga. — A twin-engine commuter airplane crashed in a hay field in west Georgia on Monday, killing three people, after an engine malfunctioned and began to disintegrate in flight.

Twenty-six people were injured, 10 of them critically, according to rescue officials who called it a "miracle" anyone survived.

The plane, a 30-seat Brazilian Embraer 120, was en route to Gulfport, Miss., from Atlanta with 26 passengers and three crew members. It broke into three pieces upon impact and burst into flames. Witnesses said survivors, many of them with their clothing afire, fled the aircraft in panic. Many who suffered only minor injuries braved the flames to help rescue fellow passengers.

"It was a horrible sight," said Chuck Phisterer, an executive with a Connecticut paper company who was aboard. He said he used his shirt and pants to smother the flames on other passengers. "Quite a few of us tried to beat the flames out or make people roll on the ground as they would emerge," he said.

Paul Butler, whose home is 75 yards from the crash site, said his hay field was littered with the bodies of the wounded, most of whom he assumed were dead. He was amazed that so few of the 29 people aboard died.

"Some of them were running, some were staggering, some were crawling, and some were just lying in the field," he said. "I think some of them got thrown out of the plane."

He said he brought blankets and tried to keep victims from wandering away. "They were in shock," he said. "Whatever way they were headed when they came off that plane, they just kept going."

The clothes were burned off some of the victims, he said.

The Atlanta Southeast Airlines twin turboprop plane left Atlanta at 12:28 p.m. The company is a commuter service of Delta Airlines, flying to many small cities in the southeastern United States.

A Federal Aviation Administration spokeswoman said the pilot of the plane, Flight 529, reported engine problems before it went down. Air controllers lost radar contact at 12:45 p.m.

Passengers said they could see the left engine begin to come apart before the plane crashed. "The skin of the engine came off," said Phisterer. "You could see its guts."

Major Charles A. LeMay, a meteorologist with Air Force Global Weather Central at the Offutt Air Force Base in Omaha, Neb., said he saw the metal band that held the propeller in place fly off and the metal peel away from the engine.

"I was asleep and heard a loud noise," he said. "I woke up, looked out and saw the left engine, the prop was lying against the wing--I don't know what was holding it on--and the cowling and the engine were coming apart. We could see fuel coming out."

Both men reported a miraculous calm on board as the flight attendant announced that one engine had malfunctioned and the plane would return to Atlanta. Even when passengers felt the plane start to come down rapidly, "I don't think anyone thought we were going to crash," LeMay said. "We all thought we were going to make it to an airport with one engine."

It wasn't until the plane had crashed that people began to panic, he said.

Phisterer credited the composure of the flight attendant with keeping everyone calm, which he said helped hold down injuries.

"I thought I was going to die," he said. "I was just hoping it was going to end real quick. I opened my eyes to see I was alive, the plane was in pieces and I was hanging by my seat belt. I yelled for people to help me with my seat belt, which they did, and I was one of the first four or five people out of the plane."

Phisterer, wearing borrowed clothes at the Bowdon Area Hospital three hours after the crash, suffered only minor cuts and bruises. The front of LeMay's Air Force uniform was stained with blood and he had an adhesive bandage on the middle finger of his right hand. Other than that and a few cuts on his arms, he was fine as he calmly recounted the experience for reporters.

"The Lord protected us," he said.

Gary McConnell, director of the Georgia Emergency Management Agency, called it "a miracle" that so many people survived.

Officials said they believe the pilot may have realized he couldn't make it back to Atlanta and was en route to West Georgia Regional Airport in Bowdon when he decided to land on the uneven terrain virtually in Paul Butler's back yard.

Butler said he was reading a book in his living room when he heard two loud crashes and ran outside without shoes into the brambles to do what he could. "You could smell the jet fuel," he said. "I was afraid the thing was going to blow up. I really expected it to go sky high."

Polona Jeter, who lives nearby, said she saw the front of the plane "rolling and tumbling and on fire" as the aircraft came apart.

"I could see about 10 people getting out," she said. "Some were burning. They were running. People were trying to get them down and get it out."

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