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Breaking News

Aspen Plane Crash: Authorities Detail Accident

Aired March 30, 2001 - 7:00 a.m. ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.

CAROL LIN, CNN ANCHOR: As you've heard by now, 18 people are dead in a private jet crash near an Aspen resort. We are going to go live right now to Aspen where authorities are giving a news conference.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: (JOINED IN PROGRESS) He is chairman of the Board of County Commissioners for Pitkin County. And Arnold Scott, at the end, is a representative from the National Transportation Safety Board. They are all here, and available to answer questions.

We want to start first and express our deepest sympathy to the family and friends of those who died in the crash today. It's a very sad day for us here in Pitkin County. And I'll ask you to direct your questions directly to any of these men.

Go ahead.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: They'll have to speak into the microphone...

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: All right, and they're going to step here. They're going to step to the center.

QUESTION: Arnold, may we hear from you first? Can you tell us what you know about what may have caused the accident, if you guys have any information so far?

ARNOLD SCOTT, NTSB: No, ma'am, I don't -- I don't deal in cause. The board's job is to investigate the aircraft accident, to uncover all the facts, circumstances, conditions surrounding it. And it's left up to the five-member board to determine the probable cause.

QUESTION: Have you been to the site?

SCOTT: Yes, I have.

QUESTION: Can you tell us what is your impression of what you saw at the site?

SCOTT: The airplane is destroyed. There was some fire. It was quickly extinguished by the fire department. We were informed that there are 15 passengers and three crew. The coroner's office has confirmed to me that they have recovered 18 bodies. And, basically, that's all I can tell you at this point. There is a Go Team en route, as we speak now, coming in from Washington. Their estimated time of arrival is seven o'clock in the morning.

The team is being headed up by acting Chairman Carol Carmody. That's spelt C-A-R-M-O-D-Y. And the investigator in charge is a Mr. Al Dickinson.

They'll be supported by a team of about nine investigators, and supported also by some FAA personnel. They are all experts in their fields: structures, power plant systems, air traffic control, meteorology. And they will be arriving in the morning to conduct this investigation.

QUESTION: So what do you make from the location of the -- of the wreckage so close to the airport? At this point, can you make anything of just how close they were to actually making it to that?

SCOTT: I understand they're about 500 yards from the runway, not very far.

QUESTION: Can you show?

SCOTT: The airplane struck a hill just short of the runway. And by the way, we did recover the cockpit voice recorder which I'll turn over to the Go Team when they arrive.

QUESTION: It's true that weather -- is it too hard to say weather definitely the cause?

SCOTT: Like I said, I don't discuss cause, sir. It was light snow. But I understand that the flight crew did tell the tower that they had the runway in sight.

QUESTION: Where does the process go from here? You have 18 bodies. Have you begun to notify the victims' families?

SCOTT: You'll have to ask the Pitkin County coroner about that. I'm sure they're in the process of doing that.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I can answer that.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: For domestic investigation.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Statutorily the Pitkin County coroner is in charge of identification and notification. That process is under way.

The coroner, Dr. Steve Ayers (ph), is on duty at the emergency room right now with patients in the intensive care unit. He couldn't attend the press conference.

We've been notified that it may be a day or two days or even longer before final notification and identification occurs.

QUESTION: Can you give us an idea at all of where the victims are from? Are they from the California area or from Colorado? UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We assume they're from California...

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Yes.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: ... but we have nothing etched in concrete right now. The plane left Burbank, stopped at LAX. and came to Aspen.

QUESTION: Sheriff, when your deputies got on scene, can you tell us what...

LIN: What's going on? All right, there we go.

That was a news conference, live, out of Aspen, Colorado, at the sheriff's department, where we just heard from people who are on the investigating team, in particular the National Transportation Safety Board, which said that the airplane, the Gulfstream private jet, made it within about 500 yards of the runway at Sardy Field in Aspen, Colorado. That they have been able to recover the cockpit voice recorder, as well as all 18 bodies from the people on board.

They describe the scene of the plane. The plane completely destroyed. There was some fire, which the fire department was able to put out. There is what is being called a Go Team out of Washington D.C.; professional investigators, nine investigators specializing in meteorology, the mechanics of the plane, air traffic control. They're on route to Aspen right now, and they should arrive in about an hour.

In the meantime, it's going to take at least a couple of days to confirm the identities of the people onboard and to notify those families. As soon as we have more information for you, we will get it to you.

But in the meantime, we want to go live to the scene near the plan crash, where CNN's Mike Boettcher has been covering the story through the night -- Mike.

MIKE BOETTCHER, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, we learned from the press conference that the control tower here at Aspen Airport, you see it behind me, received word from the aircraft, that G3 flying here from Los Angeles, that they had the runway in sight.

Now the variable here is what was happening with the weather at that point. At around seven o'clock there was very light snow or no snow. And then as the time progressed to around 7:10, 7:12, there was increasing snow and decreasing visibility. So that is one of the factors that will be looked at by the NTSB.

They said that it would take some time for the identification of the victims. But a manifest of the passengers does exist. And we're told that it may not take a day or two. It may come sooner than that the announcement of who was on the plane.

So that is one of the other variables we'll have to look at in this airport because it is Aspen, is the home of the rich and famous. There are G3s and big business jets coming in and out of here all the time with very famous and very rich people. And so we'll wait to see who was on that aircraft.

Investigators earlier on from the NTSB, from the Denver office, did go through the wreckage. They were aided by firemen who were at the scene. They have now controlled that scene and blocked it off.

But it is right next to Highway 82, which is the main thoroughfare leading into Aspen. So there were many, many eyewitnesses. And certainly many of those eyewitnesses will be interviewed by the NTSB in their investigation.

They say they saw the plane in a strange attitude, nose up. And then it fell to the ground and exploded, according to eyewitnesses. I talked to one official here who was at the site, who said there are only small pieces of the aircraft left and there is an impact crater -- Carol.

LIN: Mike, we're going to have you stand by for just a moment. We want to get back to that news conference right now where an NTSB investigator is giving more information.

QUESTION: These planes do not have data recorders?

SCOTT: No, sir, not this particular airplane.

QUESTION: One thing we've heard is that the difficulty of the approach in this airport because it's in a mountain valley. As an aviation expert, can you at least talk about that? This obviously was an instrument approach and...

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: What's that?

QUESTION: What do you think the approach was like for this pilot?

SCOTT: Well, it was -- it is a mountainous territory. But, like I said, the flight crew reported the tower that they had the runway in sight. So, therefore, the instrument portion of the flight was basically over with and they were proceeding under visual conditions.

So what difficulties they ran into or what difficulties they had on the approach, I really can't answer.

QUESTION: Can't speak to the type of weather that they were having on that approach? I mean, what was it like up here on that approach weather wise? Was it light conditions, heavy snow, light snow?

SCOTT: I understand it was light snow. Maybe somebody else here has a better report of the weather.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I believe the weather was light to moderate snowfall. And it was dark.

QUESTION: Some of the eyewitnesses reported the plane was going really snow -- slow to the effect that they thought it was a helicopter. Do you have any explanation for why a pilot would slow down a plane to that level?

SCOTT: No, ma'am. And then again, I have not talked that -- those witnesses, so I really can't comment on that.

QUESTION: And can you explain how the flight was coming in with instruments? And then you said that he had the line of sight. Can you explain how a pilot lands a plane in an area like this and the transfer from using instruments to visuals?

SCOTT: I don't think I would be the person to ask. I think one of your pilots who flies in here every day would be a better person to ask on that. I basically investigate them.

QUESTION: To your knowledge, was the last communication between the tower and the cockpit when they had the runway in sight?

SCOTT: I believe that was the last communication, yes, sir.

QUESTION: How shortly was that before the accident?

SCOTT: I don't know. I don't have the timescale in front of me, but it was just moments before, I understand.

QUESTION: What are the next steps?

SCOTT: You'll have to ask the go team. When Acting Chairman Carmody gets here, she will be the spokeswoman for the go team, and they will be conducting press briefings on a daily basis. And I'm sure she'll be happy to answer those questions in more specific detail than I can.

QUESTION: Where will the names of the victims be released? Will it be here in Aspen or will it be out of Burbank?

SHERIFF BOB BRAUDIS, PITKIN COUNTY, COLORADO: As I said earlier, the names will be released by the Pitkin County coroner here in Aspen.

QUESTION: Can you tell us, at least, how many men or women or if there were any children aboard?

BRAUDIS: I don't have that count. I don't have that breakdown.

QUESTION: Have any of the families been contacted?

BRAUDIS: Some of the families have been contacted by the coroner's office and some by the owner of the aircraft. We're trying to coordinate those efforts right now, as we speak.

QUESTION: Do you have any information on who had chartered the aircraft, who owned it, and where its origination was?

BRAUDIS: It originated in Burbank and stopped at LAX. The corporate entity that we are in communication with is called Avjet, in Burbank, California.

QUESTION: Do you know who had chartered it? BRAUDIS: I don't.

QUESTION: Is that a common flight, do you know, from Burbank or LAX all the way out here to Aspen?

BRAUDIS: We get an awful lot of corporate private jets from the West Coast and all around the country.

QUESTION: So is there any sense of why they were coming to Aspen?

BRAUDIS: I don't have any information about why they were coming and what their affinity was with each other.

QUESTION: Is the airport still scheduled to open this morning at 7:00?

BRAUDIS: Yes, it is.

QUESTION: When will the wreckage be cleaned up? How long will that stay there before it's removed?

SCOTT: It could vary. I would say it would be there anywhere from three days to a week or so. It depends on how fast and how the investigation progresses. A lot of things can affect it: weather conditions, the terrain. We'll just have to wait and see. But I would say at least three days and maybe as much as a week to 1 1/2 weeks or something like that.

QUESTION: How long does it normally take to figure out what caused a plane crash?

SCOTT: Since I don't determine cause, I can't tell you. You'll have to ask the acting chairman when she arrives here how long they think it might take.

QUESTION: Sheriff, can you put to rest any speculation that this is connected to the National Deputies' Conference, which is to be held today?

BRAUDIS: I think I can put to rest. I don't think it was a political trip.

QUESTION: Were these celebrities?

BRAUDIS: I didn't recognize any of the names as celebrities.

QUESTION: Have you been contacted by any celebrities in the area that were expecting these people to come in, since it was a chartered flight by an entertainment company?

BRAUDIS: The Coroner's Office has made most of those contacts, and as I said, he's not here right now.

QUESTION: Mr. Scott, could you talk a little bit about the Gulfstream III and any kind of details about that particular plane? SCOTT: Can I tell you anything about the Gulfstream III?

QUESTION: I mean, how many passengers does it would hold?

SCOTT: It depends on the configuration. It can carry, when it's configured in the executive configuration, a smaller number. If it's configured in a passenger configuration, it can carry a greater number. But it is considered, I guess you could say, the queen of the corporate aircraft fleet. It is a twin-engine turbojet. It's not unusual to see it flying transoceanic.

QUESTION: Can you describe the crash site a little bit and what direction everything impacted and hit? Are you that far along yet?

SCOTT: It was dark out there, but from what I could see, it appeared that the aircraft was aligned with the runway, or maybe slightly to the right of centerline. But it was dark, and I couldn't really tell.

LIN: You're listening to Arnold Scott with the National Transportation Safety Board describing some of the conditions shortly before the plane landed.

Confirmation now is that none of the names on the passenger manifest were identifiable as celebrities, according to the Pitkin County Sheriff's Department. There's been a lot of speculation overnight as to who might be on that plane, since it is owned by a Hollywood production company, Cinergi Pictures Entertainment. And there was some speculation, given that it was taking off from Burbank and picking up passengers at LAX and flying on to the ski resort town of Aspen, that the profile of the people on board could be pretty well known.

So again, on the passenger manifest, the sheriff did not recognize any of the names as celebrities. But it could take a couple of days to get confirmed identity, as well as notification of the families, which has already begun, overnight.

Again, you saw the pictures of the crash scene. Snow was falling at the time.

But Dave Hennen has been working this story from the weather standpoint -- Dave, you've been saying that the weather shifted quite suddenly right before the plane landed.

DAVE HENNEN, CNN METEOROLOGIST: Exactly, Carol. We're waiting to hear the exact time of the crash. We know that it was approximately 7:00 p.m. Mountain Standard Time. And the reason we say that is because there were highly variable conditions in about a 20- minute timeframe just before 7:00 and just after.

Just to orient you here, here is, basically, downtown Aspen. Here the airport is located, to the northwest of town.

So at 6:53 p.m., the visibility was more than 10 miles. There was light snow falling, but it was very light snow at that time. But just after 7:00 local time, a snow shower basically moved over the airport, so the visibility went from 10 miles plus, which are considered VFR conditions -- visual flight rule -- back down to IFR conditions, or instrument flight rule, when the visibility dropped to 1 3/4 miles, shortly after 7:00.

So it was sometime in that timeframe when the plane crashed. And we'll look for a further update to the exact time of when the plane went down -- Carol.

LIN: Dave, a quick question for you. Because the National Transportation Safety Board was saying that, at the time of the crash, or shortly before that, the pilot indicated that he could actually see the runway. So he did have some visibility. Can weather shift that quickly from clear to cloudy and back to clear again?

HENNEN: It can, Carol, indeed. In fact, think of it as a summer thunderstorm. In this case, it would be a snow shower. So where you have the visibility, for instance, at 6:53, that is fine -- more than 10 miles visibility. And then just a few minutes later, as that snow shower comes in rather quickly, the visibility can drop very quickly.

So according to what we call ASOS sites -- an automated site there in Aspen that records the weather conditions -- at about 11 minutes after, the weather changed very quickly, and the visibility dropped very quickly at that time, back down to 1 3/4 miles.

LIN: All right, thank you very much, Dave Hennen.

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