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Plane crash in Montana kills 14 to 17 people

The plane, which took off from California, crashed 500 feet short of the airport in Butte. The passengers may have been on a ski trip and included a number of children, a local newspaper reports.

March 23, 2009|Kim Murphy and Garrett Therolf

MISSOULA, MONT., AND LOS ANGELES — A single-engine plane from California crashed in Butte, Mont., on Sunday afternoon, killing 14 to 17 people, including children, a Federal Aviation Administration spokesman said.

A witness in California said he saw about a dozen children ranging in age from 6 to 10. There was speculation that they may have been on a skiing trip.

The flight originated in Redlands and made stops in Vacaville and Oroville in Northern California, according to FlightAware.com, a Web-based aviation tracking system. The plane came down about 500 feet short of the runway, nose-diving in Holy Cross Cemetery shortly after 3 p.m. local time.

The original flight plan called for the plane to land in Bozeman, Mont., but the pilot made a last-minute diversion to Butte for unknown reasons, FAA spokesman Les Dorr said. The plane was a Pilatus PC-12, a single-engine, turbo-prop aircraft that is usually configured to carry nine people, he said.

In Oroville, where the plane was refueled, Tom Hagler, owner of the general aviation service, said several children briefly got off the plane to use the bathroom.

Hagler told the Associated Press that he saw about a dozen children ranging in age from 6 to 10 and four adults.

"There were a lot of kids in the group," he said. "A lot of really cute kids."

Martha Guidoni of Butte, who witnessed the crash, told The Times that she and her husband were taking a drive on the outskirts of town when they looked up and saw the plane overhead.

"All of a sudden we seen this airplane coming in, and my husband said, 'That plane's going to crash.' I was just going to say, 'No it's not,' and before I could get that out of my mouth, it took a nose-dive into the cemetery."

The impact left a 20-foot crater in the cemetery, Guidoni said. The couple's home burned down five years ago, and she could not bring herself to approach the wreckage, which was shooting flames into the sky.

"I hate fire. I mean, I literally hate fire," she said.

Her husband went down to see if he could help, but found the plane had disintegrated on impact, she added.

"He went down to the cemetery to see if there was anybody he could help, and it was too late. The plane was disintegrated. There was nothing and no one to help. It was icky, just a horrible thing."

She said the plane's engine could be heard before the crash.

"It sounded like a little Cessna; that's what I would compare it to," she said. "And then all of a sudden it just dropped. It was like -- it just went boom! Right into the ground. And then it was immediately on fire. It just shot up in flames, and it looked like it caught some of the headstones on fire, that's how hot it was."

A source familiar with the investigation said the pilot was on an instrument flight rules flight plan to Bozeman but canceled the IFR flight plan after reporting that he was established on a visual approach to Butte. The pilot said, "I will just finish it VFR" -- visual flight rules.

The pilot did not declare any sort of emergency, the source said.

"If he had a problem, it seems like he would have declared an emergency," the source said.

An investigator with the National Transportation Safety Board offered few details at a Sunday night news conference in Butte. No cause of the crash was given, the Associated Press reported.

"We are just beginning our investigation. We don't have a lot of information at this time," Kristi Dunks said. "Certain family members were contacted. At this point, I don't have an exact number."

Butte-Silver Bow Coroner Lee LaBreche described the crash site as "more of a debris field than anything," and said the remains of those aboard were covered with tarps and were still at the scene Sunday night.

LaBreche said he did not know where the pilot and passengers were from.

The plane was owned by Eagle Cap Leasing Inc., whose president is Irving M. "Bud" Feldkamp III, a dentist who lives in Redlands.

FAA records show that Feldkamp is a certified pilot rated for instrument flight. He has been a pilot since 1994 and had his last medical certification in February 2007, records show.

It was partly cloudy, the visibility was 10 miles and winds were blowing from the northwest around 10 mph at the time of the crash, according to hourly temperature information from the National Weather Service.

The crash is the fourth major plane accident in the U.S. in about three months.

On Dec. 20, a Continental Airlines plane veered off a runway and slid into a snowy field at Denver International Airport, injuring 37 people. No one was killed.

In January, a US Airways jetliner landed in New York's Hudson River after a flock of geese disabled both engines. All 155 people aboard survived.

Last month, a commuter plane fell on a house in a suburb of Buffalo, N.Y., killing all 49 passengers and crew and a man in the home.

--

kim.murphy@latimes.com

garrett.therolf@latimes.com

Times staff writers Eric Bailey in Sacramento and Kim Christensen in Los Angeles contributed to this report.

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