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CNN BREAKING NEWS

Plane Crashes in North Carolina

Aired January 8, 2003 - 09:31   ET

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

LEON HARRIS, CNN ANCHOR: We do have a picture of the plane the FAA is confirming is involved. It's a Beechcraft 1900 turboprop. We are still trying to figure out at the takeoff time which is now being confirmed at 8:45 Eastern Time, what the weather was like, whether there was any fog, and let's catch up with Keith Bridges now, who can maybe answer some of those questions.
Keith, thank you for joining us at such a traumatic time. Can you tell us what happened here?

KEITH BRIDGES, POLICE SPOKESMAN: Well, we are trying to put the pieces together and figure this out, and it may take some time because essentially what we've got now is a commuter plane gone down here at the airport near one of the hangars. Reportedly about 19 folks on board. At this time, we have no survivors and we may have a couple of other folks who are missing. We are still trying to do an assessment.

ZAHN: Hang on a minute, Keith, you're saying you don't believe there have been any survivors here?

BRIDGES: That's correct. It looks like we may have at least 19 that have lost their lives.

ZAHN: Oh, my God. Yes, the initial report appeared to be a little more optimistic than that. In addition to that, the plane was carrying two crew members. Do we know about their status?

BRIDGES: I think those crew members are included in the 19, the numbers I'm hearing right now.

ZAHN: Is that the total number of people you believe to have been on board, just 19, or were you given the 21 figure?

BRIDGES: No, 19 is the number I've been told. It could go to 21. We have two ground workers that have not been able to be located at this time. They're still trying to do a head count to determine that, whether they're OK or not. They could be because we had to evacuate the hangars. They may not have located them right now, but we're trying.

ZAHN: Keith, it's very difficult for us from this perspective to tell the point of impact. Can you just describe to us what this wreckage scene looks like? We see part of the airport hangar singed, black smoke all over it. Was that the point of impact?

BRIDGES: It was outside the hangar. If you have seen some blue metal structures like the scaffolding which I assume they use to work on planes, and it's right around where the scaffolding is just outside the hangar where the crash and debris is scattered.

ZAHN: Is there more debris inside the hangar as well, or is that to the right of the hangar what we are seeing to the right of the hangar?

BRIDGES: Yes, all of it is outside.

ZAHN: Now, an eyewitness told one of the local news stations down there it appeared as though the plane had flipped over, that it hit the ground on its back. What do you know about that?

BRIDGES: I don't know anything, and I think it would be too early to even try to make that kind of assessment right now. It's going to take some investigation. Certainly, the -- we are on the scene investigating. FAA and NTSB will be here, and the FBI is on the way to the scene as well.

ZAHN: What can you tell us about the weather at takeoff time?

BRIDGES: Clear, cold, and windy, no fog, very high clouds. It's a beautiful day.

ZAHN: Keith, there has been conflicting information about who this plane was actually flying for. Was this a U.S. Airways Express plane?

BRIDGES: That's what we are trying to determine that as well. I've heard three different names. The debris is in such bad shape. I'm not in a position to be able to determine and I would hate, at this time, to try to confirm any one company that it was flying for.

ZAHN: Yes, the two companies we heard were U.S. Airways Express and Air Midwest. We know some of the commuter companies often flip planes around. The FAA is confirming this was a Beechcraft 1900 turboprop. Do you know anything more than that?

BRIDGES: I don't, other than it was a fairly small commuter plane. So that is really about all I can tell you right now. The debris is -- the plane is so destroyed, there is really not much left to be able to see or to determine exactly what kind of aircraft it was from certainly our vantage point. It will take someone who is very familiar with the aircraft to get in and look at the debris and make that assessment.

ZAHN: Keith, we are all sickened to hear you report for the first time that you believe everybody on board this plane was killed. You believe many 19 people in all. Describe to us right now what is being done at the scene.

BRIDGES: Right now, it's just try to contain everything right here, keep -- let the folks who need to get to the scene get up here to the scene. Once some inspectors start doing some things, we will be able to start removing bodies, and it's just a horrible sight. It's just horrible.

ZAHN: And because you have to confront this horrible reality of deaths on the ground, have you been given any information on what kind of contact any airline officials are trying to make with family members now?

BRIDGES: At this point, no. I mean, I'm at the scene. I'm sure a lot of that is being done inside the airport and at the airline offices. So I don't, at this point in time, know what to be able tell you on that.

ZAHN: I know we are in the same loop you are, because you've been given conflicting information about the carrier. Can you confirm that this plane was on its way to the Greenville-Spartanburg jet port in South Carolina?

BRIDGES: I can't do that. I've been asking to try to find out if I can whether it was taking off or whether it was landing, and I've gotten some conflicting information on that. You've got to understand at this point in time, that's really not critical information to us.

Right now, our immediate role was to get in here and see if we could save some folks and try to contain the fire and the damage from spreading to other buildings and do what we could, control traffic. Those are the critical issues that police, fire, paramedics take on at a time like this. And where it's coming from or where it's going to, we want to know that, certainly, but right now, that is not really the critical issue.

ZAHN: Keith, can you give us a better idea of just how many people were involved in that effort right now? You mentioned the police and the medics.

BRIDGES: There are hundreds. We've got police, we've got numerous folks out here, fire, hazmat teams are out here obviously because of the fuel spill and the fire that took place, medic has numerous people out here. There is airport authority has folks out here. There is quite a number of people at the scene right now.

ZAHN: And what is your chief concern from the police department's perspective?

BRIDGES: Well, right now, unfortunately, because of what appears to be the outcome of this, we are just going to certainly try to keep the roads open, to keep emergency personnel coming in as needed, investigators to be coming in and keep this scene secure. Because the tragedy of the situation, there is not a whole lot the police can do right now.

ZAHN: And, Keith, I know you confirmed for us you believe 19 people have died there. Is there anybody on the ground that has been able to confirm that for you?

BRIDGES: Nineteen, that is pretty much confirmed. Obviously, we won't know until we start seeing a manifest and actually start pulling bodies out of the wreckage, will we be able to start making progress to give you actual numbers and see if we can account for it two other hangar workers that right now, we can't find. ZAHN: Keith, I was handed a piece of information that came from the Associated Press, and once again, it comes back to the eyewitness account we had heard earlier where an eyewitness told one of the local news stations that small plane was taking off and it suddenly banked to the left and hit the hangar shortly before 9:00 a.m. You're saying at one point, there was even some confusion whether the plane was landing or taking off?

BRIDGES: I've heard both. I don't want to say it's confusion. I've heard both. And again, you've got to understand when you have an incident like this, there is a lot of things, people see different things. They look at it from different vantage points and different perspectives. Two people who see the same thing can have different interpretations.

So until there is time that goes by that we can actually confirm one or the other, that is -- you know, that's not really a critical issue at this point in time. That's one of the things -- hopefully, about 10:00, the airport manager will be having a news conference and may, at that time, because he'll have some information from the airline officials, to be able to give you something a little more specific.

ZAHN: Keith, I know this is difficult, once again, because so many hundreds of people, you say, are on the ground. Is it your belief that all of the deaths suffered were those on board the plane, or do you fear they were people in the hangar area that might also either gotten injured or killed?

BRIDGES: Right now, we are only looking for -- that I've been told, we are only looking for two people from the hangar facility. And, again, once -- the hangar was evacuated and because of the evacuation, you know, they just could be somewhere else. We think that certainly the majority of the deaths that have occurred are those folks who were on the plane.

ZAHN: Keith, if you would stay with me for 20 seconds, I just wanted to bring the folks joining us for the first time up this morning, what they're looking at here. We have Keith Bridges of the Charlotte Police Department confirming for us that 19 people at least lost their lives here today. A commuter plane crashed into a U.S. Airways hangar shortly after taking off from Charlotte-Douglas International Airport. The FAA confirming that plane was on a short hop to the Greenville Spartanburg jet port in South Carolina.

Early on in the reporting of the story, at least when we cut into some of the local coverage, there was some optimism that maybe some of the people had survived. Keith Bridges confirming for us now that it is his belief that all 19 people on board died.

Keith, is there anything else you want to add at this point that you think is important to understand what went wrong here?

BRIDGES: Is to start trying to recover some of the folks who were on board, start the investigation, get through the briefs, and try to get all of the body removals taken care of, notifying families, and trying to deal with those elements of the investigation and the scene.

Fortunately, you know, if there is something fortunate in this, it didn't go into the building and injure or kill even more people. But certainly this is a sad and tragic event.

ZAHN: And I guess, Keith, what is so mystifying about this, is the early stages of this investigation, you report the weather was clear, it was cold. Nothing in the weather to suggest anything that might have created problems for this plane?

BRIDGES: Gusty winds, but I certainly wouldn't even assume that had any impact on it. But it's just clear and cold.

ZAHN: And, Keith, I know you can't confirm that, but in a number of various reports this morning, we've seen an eyewitness describing the plane upon takeoff veering to the left and then turning over onto its back upon impact.

Keith, I recognize you got a lot of work to get done. Before we let you go, once again, you say there are hundreds of people involved in this effort right now. How far away are you getting help from?

BRIDGES: Right now, it's just the Charlotte and local county areas.

ZAHN: All right, well, we wish you the best of luck as you try to figure out what went horribly wrong here. Thank you very much. We recognize you're in the same situation we are, where a lot of this information is coming fast and furiously, and it changes pretty quickly,. but I think you have given us the best solid information we've gotten all morning. Keith Bridges, thank you very much for taking a little time out of your very demanding day -- Bill.

BILL HEMMER, CNN ANCHOR: About 17 minutes away as we watch the clock right now. 10:00 a.m. Eastern Time is the time we have been given for a briefing from the airport, if things stay to schedule the way we have been watching things through Keith and others down there in Charlotte. 10:00 a.m. briefing if a moment on CNN.

In the meantime, Patty Davis covers aviation for us. Patty is down in D.C. Patty, jump on in here quickly. This Beechcraft 1900, what do we know about it? What could you add right now?

PATTY DAVIS, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, we know that it's a turboprop. U.S. Airways just confirming to me that, indeed, this is one of their regional turboprops. This is an airplane commonly used in regional operations by the airlines. In fact, I'm told by an aviation source, that this plane did crash just before 9:00 a.m. this morning. I'm told there was no difficulty indicated to air traffic control by the crew. So no problem there. Also, no weather problems. Winds are light.

A source is also telling me that it appears that this hangar is the U.S. Airways maintenance hangar. We don't have confirmation of that. But it appears that this was a U.S. Airways maintenance hangar. So there may have been people inside. Sources telling me indeed by the severity, just the looks of this crash, they don't know yet, but it does appear, as the gentleman who was just speaking before me, was saying that there probably are few survivors.

Of course, we're all hoping that that is not the -- that certainly people did survive this crash. Of course, the National Transportation Safety Board will soon be taking off here and going to investigate this crash, as they always do, and they will hopefully be giving us answers in the next hours, the next day -- Bill.

HEMMER: Patty Davis in D.C. Patty, thanks. Paula again.

ZAHN: Yes, Bill, we've been talking for the last, I guess, 50 minutes or so about what eyewitnesses have said about what they saw.

Let's turn to Jim Slade, who is a local metro traffic reporter, who has had the opportunity to talk with folks who were in the vicinity at the time of the crash to see what they saw.

Jim, thanks for joining us. What have they described to you?

JIM SLADE, REPORTER: Well, here is what we know so far: Emergency crews on the scene of a commuter plane crash near Charlotte- Douglas International Airport in Charlotte. According to airport sources, it was U.S. Airways Express flight 5481 bound for Greenville- Spartanburg, South Carolina; 19 passengers and two crew members on board.

Randy Parker was near the airport and witnessed the crash.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

RANDY PARKER, WITNESS: I really just saw the tail end of it as I was getting out of my vehicle. It looked like a plane had lost altitude and it crashed on the other side of the airport from where I was at.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

SLADE: We have confirmation it was a U.S. Airways maintenance hangar on the airport property. It happened around 9:00 a.m. No word on injuries at this point. Airport authorities have scheduled a news conference for 10:00 a.m.

From Charlotte, Jim Slade for CNN.

ZAHN: Jim, I'd love to ask you another question, if we can keep the line open.

Are you still with us?

SLADE: Certainly.

ZAHN: Jim, the other thing that we heard an eyewitness describe to one of the local news television stations there was it appeared as though the plane had veered to the left and that it actually crashed on its back. Have you heard any confirmation of that? SLADE: We are hearing similar reports on this end, an eyewitness account on a broadcast outlet here in Charlotte had the plane veering off and up, almost as he put it, like the space shuttle taking off and then crashing into the U.S. Airways maintenance hangar on its back. So that would be a report that we've heard on this end as well.

ZAHN: And, Jim, we also got off the phone with Keith Bridges of the Charlotte Police Department, and he confirmed for us, he believes there are at least 19 deaths here. You and I are reporting the same number, about 19 passengers, two crew members. What can you tell us about that?

SLADE: That's what we're hearing, that there are 19 passengers on board the plane when it went down and possibly two crew members on board as well. We are also hearing from other broadcast sources here in town that the hospital here in town, Carolina's Medical Center, is not expecting transport of any victims from this crash. But that is not confirmed at this point. Again, I will say...

ZAHN: Not what any of us wanted to hear.

Sorry, Jim, carry on.

SLADE: I can also say that doing traffic reports that we do here in Charlotte, we fly a plane around town, and that plane, which was scheduled to land at Charlotte-Douglas International Airport around 9:00 was delayed for sometime in landing, and now put a three-mile no fly zone in effect around the airport for a short time as they investigate this crash.

ZAHN: Keith bridges of the P.D. was also explaining he thought at the time of takeoff, the weather was clear, it was cold, there were some gusty winds. You had folks up in helicopters all day. How gusty were the winds?

SLADE: Gusty winds had been forecasts for our area all morning. I can't speculate whether that played a part in the crash, but there were gusty winds, and pretty much clear conditions, very high clouds and certainly, visibility would not have been an issue.

ZAHN: Can you give us more information on what you are seeing? I know Keith Bridges said he believed there were hundreds of people now involved in this effort. He described fire departments being on the scene, the police department, the hazmat team, and even some folks from the FBI.

SLADE: Absolutely, the response here was instantaneous, pretty much, with fire crews rolling out to the airport just moments after the crash and there was a pretty intense cloud of black smoke, which, with the light wind that was here in Charlotte at the time, pretty much made its way a couple of miles across the city before the flames were extinguished, and we pretty much saw white smoke, which indicated they were actually getting some foam or something or another on the fire. Now, at this point, it just looks like a charred area of grass and corner of the U.S. Airways hangar, which is used for maintenance, which has been demolished by this crash. ZAHN: We could not he' make out from the picture we are looking at here, when you talk about the charred area of the grass, that is what, a couple of hundred yards away from the hangar?

SLADE: It looks to be about a hundred yards away from the hangar and probably about, I would say, a hundred yards in diameter, this big charred area, and they, apparently, are still putting water apparently on that.

ZAHN: That all, you believe, makes up a part of the debris field. We are getting a better shot now, but we're not seeing the grassy area you are talking about in this particular shot. How widespread do you think the debris field is?

SLADE: I can't say. I have seen some footage of what looks to be a piece of a plane, which has been surrounded by some pylons there, and it appears to be on the tarmac. I can't speak for where on the airport that is, but it apparently is on the airport property and tarmac, so they apparently are already roping off some areas they think will be under investigation.

ZAHN: We want to confirm, once again, Jim, for the folks just joining us now, the police department officials from the Charlotte area are confirming that they believe 19 people lost their lives when this commuter jet went down today. We, as you have just reported, believe 21 people were on board. I guess if you would like to repeat the fact, Jim, that made all of us get sick. You say the hospitals in the area are not prepared to have anyone transported for care?

SLADE: That is what we are hearing from sources at Carolina's Medical Center, the main hospital here in Charlotte. Reports are that they are not expecting anyone to be transported in connection with this crash.

ZAHN: And have you been getting any information on whether officials believe the deaths were confined to the folks on board this plane, or is there a belief that perhaps more people lost their lives who might have been working in the hangar area?

SLADE: I am unable to speculate on that completely. There is no word on injuries or fatalities on the ground. We don't have any idea if this building that we are seeing was in operation at the time, the U.S. Airways maintenance hangar, we just don't know. But airport authorities are scheduling a news conference for 10:00 a.m., and we hope to find out more then.

ZAHN: We will be covering that live and let you get back to the important work you have to do. Jim Slade, one of the local metro traffic reporters, who had the opportunity to talk with a number of eyewitnesses.

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