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Charter Plane Carrying Gamblers Crashes in Pa.; All 19 Aboard Killed

May 22, 2000|MARK FRITZ | TIMES STAFF WRITER

BEAR CREEK, Pa. — A charter jet bringing gamblers back to the Pennsylvania Poconos from Atlantic City, N.J., plunged Sunday into the foggy hills just a few miles from their home.

The pilot, co-pilot and 17 passengers died when the 1988 BA-33 Jetstream crashed into a densely wooded mountaintop near a cleared corridor of land that ran above an underground natural gas pipeline.

"It looked like it smashed straight into the ground," said a state trooper, who insisted on anonymity, after returning from the remote crash scene. He said emergency crews had recovered the flight data recorder.

Federal Aviation Authority officials in Washington said the twin-engine turboprop was attempting an emergency landing after both engines failed. A National Transportation Safety Board team arrived at the scene several hours after the crash to investigate.

The Executive Airlines plane departed Atlantic City at 10:30 a.m. EDT for the one-hour flight to the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton International Airport. The craft vanished from radar about 11:40 a.m. during the second of two instrument approaches. Pilots rely on instruments to land when visibility is poor.

The plane hit the ground and burst into a ball of fire about nine miles south of the northeastern Pennsylvania city of Wilkes-Barre in a state hunting preserve in Bear Creek Township, where the Poconos begin.

The area around the crash is 2,000 feet above sea level, and the fog and cloud cover was at 1,500 feet at the time of the crash, said Bob Orbin, a state Game Commission deputy for the area. "He was right in the soup," Orbin said of the pilot, who officials said had logged 5,000 hours of flight time.

None of the crew or passengers were immediately identified. Some relatives had gathered at the airport to await word, but search-and-rescue teams were sent home by late afternoon after it was clear that nobody had survived the high-velocity crash.

Orbin, a private pilot himself, said it was clear that the pilot of the failing aircraft had picked out the pipeline clearing for an emergency landing. The misty game preserve, which is secured by fences and accessible only by four-wheel-drive vehicles, is never part of an intentional flight pattern.

The crash rattled many people in this hardscrabble mountain town of largely third-generation Americans of East European ancestry.

Tom Askew, 31, a father of two, said the flight is for regular gamblers who are routinely "comped" by the Atlantic City casinos, which means air fare and hotel bills are picked up because they regularly wager $1,000 or more each trip.

Askew said his older brother, Ken, has been taking the same shuttle free every other week for about the last six months, and he feared the worst when his mother called him with word of the crash.

"She said a plane crashed about a mile in back of my house," said Askew, who was working on an addition to his home but hadn't heard the aircraft explode into what investigators called a ball of fire.

"She said it was the plane my brother takes to Atlantic City." Askew was stunned for a second. "I thought she was going to say he was on it. He wasn't."

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