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Key clues lost in Wellstone crash

Wreaths and photos mark a makeshift memorial at the crash site.
Wreaths and photos mark a makeshift memorial at the crash site.

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Norm Coleman, Minnesota GOP candidate for the U.S. Senate, is facing the challenge of running his campaign while respecting the memory of Sen. Paul Wellstone. CNN's Candy Crowley reports (October 29)
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Investigators are looking at weather conditions and a navigational device in searching for the cause of the plane crash that killed Sen. Paul Wellstone. CNN's Susan Candiotti reports (October 28)
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Born: July 21, 1944, Arlington, Virginia
Wife: Sheila Ison Wellstone
Children: David, Marcia, Mark
Career: U.S. senator from Minnesota, starting 1991; associate professor, political science, 1969-1990

EVELETH, Minnesota (CNN) -- The mangled remains of the plane in which Sen. Paul Wellstone died were so badly damaged by the impact and subsequent fire that some key clues to help investigators understand the cause of the crash appear to have been lost.

De-icing equipment on the King Air turboprop was so badly damaged that investigators haven't been able to determine whether it was in use at the time of the crash, said Frank Hilldrup, a lead investigator with the National Transportation Safety Board, in a news conference Monday.

The nose landing gear was too damaged to determine if it had been deployed, Hilldrup said. And while the rear landing gear appeared to have been lowered, the locking mechanism was so damaged that investigators can't tell if the wheels had been locked into place for a landing, he said.

The plane was not equipped with a cockpit voice recorder -- making analysis of the debris even more vital to determine the cause of the crash.

On Friday morning, the plane -- carrying Wellstone, his wife and daughter, three campaign aides and two pilots -- crashed shortly after one of the pilots made a radio call announcing that they were preparing to land at the Eveleth-Virginia Municipal Airport. A post-crash fire destroyed the fuselage.

All eight people aboard died.

For reasons that remain a mystery, the plane was two miles away from the airport, headed away from the runway, when it crashed in a heavily wooded area. Damage to nearby trees indicated that the plane descended at 25 degrees, much steeper than usual, according to the NTSB.

Investigators are looking at a number of factors that could have possibly contributed to the crash:

•Radar data showed that the plane was traveling just 85 knots (98 mph) at the time of the crash. Hilldrup would not speculate on whether the plane might have stalled at that speed, but he said investigators would be looking at the possibility.

Investigators have previously said that damage to the plane's propellers indicates that its engines were in operation at the time of the crash. However, Hilldrup said it is possible for a plane to stall with its engines running.

•A high-frequency radio beacon used to guide planes into the Eveleth airport was not properly calibrated, although it is unclear whether that could have affected navigation of the plane.

"We don't have enough information to say what that means to us right now," Hilldrup said.

•A pilot who took off from the airport about an hour after the crash reported "trace to light icing" as he ascended into the clouds, Hilldrup said. Weather at the time was overcast and cold, with light snow showers reported.

Investigators comb through debris at the crash site.
Investigators comb through debris at the crash site.

Although it is unclear if icing played a role in the crash, Hilldrup said that, in general, icing on a plane can make the plane heavier and affect the flow of air over the wings, which would require a higher speed to avoid a stall.

The plane's engines and propellers have been removed from the crash site and will be shipped to their respective manufacturers to be analyzed, under NTSB supervision, Hilldrup said. Instruments and gauges from the plane will be sent to the NTSB's laboratory in Washington.

--CNN Correspondent Susan Candiotti contributed to this report.

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