A Galaxy Airlines charter plane carrying a group of weekend gamblers back home to Minneapolis crashed and burned immediately after takeoff from Reno, Nev., early yesterday, killing at least 65 people, authorities said.
Some reports put the death toll as high as 71.
There were three known survivors, including a father and son from Minneapolis. Four persons on the ground suffered minor injuries, a federal official said.
Shortly after takeoff of Flight 203, a crew member radioed the air-traffic control tower at Reno Cannon International Airport that the plane was experiencing severe vibration, Federal Aviation Administration spokesman Ed Pinto said.
The tower responded: "Do you need assistance?"
"Yes," came the answer.
After that transmission, the plane -- about 2 1/2 miles from the airport and still in sight of the tower -- crashed into a field next to a highway and roared through a sales lot for recreational vehicles, smashing at least eight RVs.
The plane, a 25-year-old Lockheed Electra, had been chartered by Democratic presidential candidates Jesse L. Jackson and Sen. John Glenn of Ohio during their campaigns last year.
In May, the Secret Service asked the FAA to give the plane a special inspection after Jackson and about 80 campaign workers and reporters traveling with him suffered a harrowing, bumpy flight from Washington National Airport to Dallas-Fort Worth. The FAA examined the plane, found everything in order and permitted it to return to service, FAA officials said.
Jackson released a statement yesterday expressing "a profound sense of sorrow." He said the six crew members had also flown his charter flights and "were individuals whom we had grown to know and love during our arduous campaign journey . . . . "
Reports from the crash scene said there was an intense fire, but it could not be determined immediately whether the fire preceded or -- as is more frequent -- resulted from the impact. One report said flames were coming from one of the plane's four engines.
The 1:05 a.m. (PST) takeoff of Galaxy Flight 203 from runway 16 was in clear weather, with the temperature at 20 degrees. Carolyn McKee, a dispatcher at the Reno airport, told the Associated Press that the plane's passengers had been staying at Caesars Tahoe, one of the area's most lavish gambling and entertainment houses.
The force of the crash threw recreation vehicles from the dealership lot onto U.S. 395, south of Reno. Washoe County Sheriff Vince Swinney told reporters that the pilot apparently veered to avoid apartments and motels lining the four-lane highway. "It could have been a lot worse," Swinney said.
Some aviation experts postulated that the pilot may have been trying to land on the highway.
Mark Brenner of Reno, who was driving by when the crash occurred, said everything was engulfed in flames. "It was really shocking. The plane never seemed to get off the ground," he said. He told AP that one person ran from the airplane crying, "Help me! Help me!" and was rolled in the dirt by passers-by to extinguish flames. It was not known if the person was among the survivors.
The fuselage of the plane and the wrecks of the recreational vehicles were littered along the highway, along with travel bags and a football autographed by Dallas Cowboys running back Tony Dorsett. Yellow bags containing the bodies of victims were stacked nearby.
The three survivors were identified as George Lamson, 42, who underwent two hours of surgery and was in critical condition; his son George Jr., 17, in satisfactory condition; and Robert W. Miggins, 45, of Plymouth, Minn., who was in critical condition with burns over 90 percent of his body. He was flown to a hospital in Las Vegas.
The Lockheed Electra is a four-engine turboprop that was a mainstay of pre-jetliner civil aviation. The aircraft that crashed yesterday was purchased originally by American Airlines and has been with a variety of operators since 1969, according to Miami aviation analyst Jordan Greene.
The airline, Galaxy, is a Fort Lauderdale-based charter carrier not licensed for scheduled service. It had three Electras but only one fitted to carry passengers. Its planes are required to meet the same safety regulations imposed on major airlines.
The plane was used frequently for charter flights carrying weekend gamblers to Reno or Las Vegas. "It is kind of a one-man airline," said Greene, who said he had chartered the craft recently for a private party and found it "a nice airplane."
The one man is Galaxy owner Philip Sheridan, who could not be reached for comment yesterday. Company spokesman Jerry McCormick said Galaxy was founded in 1983 and this was its first crash.
The Civil Aeronautics Board conducted a brief "economic fitness" examination of Galaxy after the Jackson campaign flight incident last spring and found everything in order, a former CAB spokesman said. Because of airline deregulation, the CAB no longer exists. Its functions have been transferred to the Transportation Department.
This is the third Electra crash since May 30, when a cargo flight went into a 20-second nose dive over Pennsylvania and broke apart, killing three crew members and a passenger. Three crew members were killed when another Electra cargo flight crashed Jan. 9 near Kansas City, Kan.
The National Transportation Safety Board is investigating all three Electra accidents. Aviation sources noted yesterday that each appears to be different -- one occurred en route, the Kansas City accident during the plane's approach for landing and yesterday's during takeoff.
"We don't see any common factor," Lockheed spokesman David Crowther said, although he stressed that the company has not taken a close look at the accidents because "we have had no requests for help." He said the Electra has had "an excellent safety record since 1960."
Two highly publicized accidents in the early years of the Electra that killed more than 160 people were traced to a vibration set up by the propellers that caused a wing to snap. The FAA ordered modifications to the wings after those accidents.
There are countless possible reasons why a plane would crash as this one did. The transmission to the control tower about vibration could indicate many things, from a poorly balanced propeller to a misbehaving flight control. The safety board sent a team of specialists from Washington to conduct the investigation.