Tragic Midair Crash Near Philadelphia
- Kreindler partners worked on a wrongful death action relating to the midair collision between a chartered plane and a helicopter inspecting the plane’s landing gear.
- The crash killed six people, including Pennsylvania Senator John Heinz and two children who were struck by falling wreckage.
By John H. Cushman Jr., Special To the New York Times
Senator John Heinz and six other people died today when his chartered plane collided in the air with a helicopter inspecting the plane’s landing gear.
Burning wreckage fell on the grounds of an elementary school in nearby Lower Merion Township; two of the dead were children playing outside at noon recess.
Besides Senator Heinz, a Pennsylvania Republican, two other people on his plane and the two pilots on the helicopter were killed in the collision. At least two other children, the school custodian and an unknown number of other bystanders were injured, the local authorities said. One boy was burned critically.
The collision came after the Senator’s plane reported a problem with its landing gear and the helicopter offered to fly nearby to see whether the gear was down for a landing, according to preliminary reports from aviation officials in Washington.
Senator Heinz, a member of the family that founded the H. J. Heinz Company, the food products concern whose headquarters are in Pittsburgh, was a 52-year-old moderate Republican with a secure grip on the Senate seat he first won in 1976.
Under state law, Gov. Robert P. Casey, a Democrat, may name an interim successor to fill Senator Heinz’s seat until a special election is held in November, when voters will choose between nominees selected by the Democratic and Republican state committees to serve out the remainder of the term. The term expires on Jan. 1, 1995.
Current and former staff members, sobbing or holding back tears, gathered in the Senator’s Washington offices to console one another.
At Rosemont Farm, the Heinz family estate near Pittsburgh, workers who had been landscaping the property lowered the flag to half staff.
As news of the accident spread, parents rushed to the Merion Elementary School in Lower Merion Township to seek out their children, and the school canceled classes for the rest of today and Friday. Teachers will spend the day consulting with therapists and trauma experts.
‘One Blew Up in the Sky’
Visibly shaken children, held closely by their parents, told of seeing the two aircraft crash as they played outside.
“One went everywhere, and a piece fell in the boys’ basketball game, and one blew up in the sky,” said Joanna Rosengard, 7, as she buried her head in her father’s shoulder. “I thought it was a missile, like on TV, and I thought it was coming here.”
Her mother, Andrea Kramer, said Joanna told her many of the children associated the crash with television coverage of the Persian Gulf war.
The Senator, traveling in the holiday legislative recess, was on his way to a meeting of the editorial board at The Philadelphia Inquirer this afternoon, and later was to appear at a town meeting in Media, Pa. He had scheduled other appointments in the Philadelphia area on Friday.
Senator Heinz was a licensed pilot but was qualified to fly only single-engine planes. There were two hired pilots, Richard Shreck, of Montoursville, Pa., and Trond Stegen of Hughesville, Pa., aboard the Senator’s plane.
‘Under Positive Control’
The plane, a two-engine Piper Aerostar, reported difficulty with its landing gear and the helicopter flew nearby to help assess the problem, according to preliminary information provided by aviation officials in Washington.
During this maneuver both planes were in contact with air traffic controllers and with each other, an official said.
“They were under positive control,” he said, meaning that air traffic controllers were giving them instructions for flying near the airport.
The weather was good and the helicopter was flying under visual flight rules, which do not require an approved flight plan. The Senator’s plane was on an instrument-flying plan taking it from Williamsport, Pa., to Philadelphia, the official said.
Crash Maneuver Described
He said the helicopter flew near the Senator’s plane once but could not detect any problem with its landing gear. The plane flew past the airport, circling for another attempt to land.
At that point the helicopter made a second pass near the Senator’s plane to take another look, and the two aircraft collided.
A safety board official said this evening that the investigators had not yet confirmed details of the helicopter’s maneuvers, and did not know whether it was acting under instructions from air traffic controllers.
Details of what the controllers and the pilots said to each other will be released after Federal investigators review tape recordings from the control tower, where all the radio transmissions would have been recorded. Investigators said they had found a voice recorder that was on the helicopter recorder.
Investigators will want to determine why the two aircraft were allowed to fly so close to each other. A more common procedure when a plane reports problems with the landing gear is to order it to fly low over the airport so that observers on the ground can look at its undercarriage.
Sometimes warning lights in a plane’s cockpit indicate problems with landing gear even when they are properly deployed. And even with the landing gear up, it is possible to land a small plane on its belly without severe risk to occupants. Airport fire and rescue equipment would be on hand to handle any fire or injuries.
Senator Heinz was traveling on a chartered plane operated by Lycoming Air Services, an air taxi service in Montoursville, an aviation official said. The plane was leased from WW Aviation Inc. of Woolrich, Pa., he said.
The helicopter was owned by the Sun Company, an oil and coal concern. It was flown by Charles J. Burke, 42, of Coatesvile, Pa., and Michael Pozzani, 43, of Elverson, Pa.
The pilots, who had been employed by the company for several years, had just dropped off several Sun Company board members at the Philadelphia International Airport and were returning to corporate headquarters in Radnor, Pa., said Dick Jackman, a company spokesman.