INDIANAPOLIS, OCT. 20 -- A crippled Air Force jet fighter crashed into the lobby of an airport hotel here today, killing at least nine people and injuring at least six.
The pilot of the A7D Corsair II was attempting to land at Indianapolis International Airport after its engine "flamed out" about 15 miles south of the city. He ejected about two blocks before the jet crashed into the Airport Ramada Inn in a fiery explosion.
After Maj. Bruce L. Teagarden parachuted to safety, his empty plane ripped a corner off a one-story bank, slammed across a road and skidded into the hotel lobby about 9:15 a.m., just after peak check-out time.
The 46-foot-long jet came to rest 75 feet inside the hotel. "It was just like a cigar fitting into a cigar box," Indianapolis Mayor William Hudnut III said after touring the grim wreckage.
Billowing black smoke quickly engulfed the seven-story structure as a second explosion rocked the hotel. "There was a crunching sound. The whole building lurched. The walls shook," said David Ross, 41, who was sitting in his room on the fourth floor. "It was like being in an earthquake."
Authorities estimated that as many as 108 people were in the building, including 20 to 25 hotel employes and 30 to 40 people attending a conference.
Nine bodies were found on the first floor, Marion County Fire Chief Larry Curl said.
Tonight, authorities identified four of the dead, all of them hotel employes. They were Emma Jean Brownlee, 37, Beth Louise Goldberg, 30, and Brenda Joyce Henry, 26, all of Indianapolis; and Allen Mantor, 18, of Amo, Ind.
Flames soared 75 feet up the outer face of the hotel and took two hours to bring under control.
Teagarden, 35, was flying at 31,000 feet en route from Pittsburgh to Tinker Air Force Base near Oklahoma City when he radioed "Mayday, Mayday" to air traffic controllers in Indianapolis.
He was told that he had two options: to land here or at Terre Haute, 44 miles away. The pilot, operating with no engine power, approached the Indianapolis airport but arrived before he had lost enough altitude to land. The crash occurred shortly after he began to circle for another approach.
"We saw it coming real slow over the trees. The cloud cover was real low, but the plane was under it, moving real slow and funny-like. It was like a rock gliding through the air," said Bob Dye, who saw the crash from the National Car Rental parking lot a quarter-mile away.
"We heard a pop. Then his canopy flew off, and he ejected," Dye continued. "We watched him parachute down right into that industrial park."
"It was eerie. The plane wasn't making a sound, but its landing gear was down. He was so low I figured he couldn't make it," said John Lusk, 58, a coworker at the rental agency.
A small airport branch of Bank One, across the street from the Ramada, had just opened for business. The jet's landing gear apparently hit its roof, shattering windows and sending workers screaming into the street.
"As soon as it hit the hotel, there was a crash," Lusk said. "You saw a few flames then, but then there was a big explosion and big clouds of black smog."
John Kennedy, Lusk's boss, jumped into a car and headed for the crash scene. "It was in flames from the ground up to the roof. There were people running out everywhere," he said. "Most of them were crying.
"Hotel employes said things started falling, and everyone was yelling, 'Get out. Get out,' " he said. "They were worried about their fellow workers at the front desk.
"I was scared. You wanted to help, but you knew there really wasn't much to do," he said. "So I just told them to get in the car."
Hudnut said the accident was the airport's worst. He said he would not attempt to second-guess the pilot's judgment in choosing to bring the plane down at the busy Indianapolis airport instead of trying to fly the extra 44 miles and land at the more rural Terre Haute airport.
"If you and I ran out of gas on the freeway, we'd go to the nearest exit," Hudnut said.
Air Force investigators at the scene declined to speculate about why the engine quit. Jim McCue, operations director for the Indianapolis Airport Authority, said reports indicate that the pilot did the best he could. "Those planes don't glide very well. They sink like a rock," he said.
The plane took off from the 112th Tactical Fighter Group, an Air National Guard unit at the Greater Pittsburgh International Airport, Air Force spokesmen said. It was returning to Nellis Air Force Base near Las Vegas, where it was one of 21 A7s assigned to the 445th Tactical Group. The A7s -- single-engine, single-seat attack jets used in the Vietnam war -- are used in avionics testing, the Air Force said, but it declined to describe Teagarden's assignment.
Teagarden was taken to Methodist Hospital, suffering bruises and muscle strain. Later in the day, he was taken to the Army hospital at Fort Harrison outside the city, where he was questioned by Air Force officials. The Air Force would not make him available for interviews.
Teagarden attempted to land in a northeasterly direction on runway 4L but was too high and was told by controllers to make a right arc around the airport and land on a perpendicular runway. He had just begun to make the right turn when, at 1,300 feet, the plane vanished from controllers' radar.
Local rescue units from Marion County and the Indianapolis Airport Authority reached the accident within several minutes after the crash because they had been on the runway waiting for Teagarden to land.
Air Force investigators converged on the scene and took over the probe.
By 6 p.m., they had pulled the plane's engine from the lobby, but the rest of the plane was still inside, hindering investigators' attempts to search for victims and determine the toll.
"We still have not been able to sift through all the debris," Fire Chief Curl said.
The National Transportation Safety Board had no plans to send investigators because the crash involved a military plane.
Several men working on the hotel roof at the time of the crash were knocked down by the impact.
Lynne Blakely, 26, was attending a seminar in a small meeting room on the first floor. "We heard an explosion, and I saw a ball of orange coming down the hallway. People started screaming and we all ran out."
David Ross of Vancouver, British Columbia, was reading a newspaper account of Monday's stock market panic when the Corsair hit the hotel. At first, he could not believe what happened.
"Then I look out the window at the debris," he said. "It looked like someone had driven a gasoline tanker into the lobby and it exploded."
Ross and most other guests escaped through a rear exit. Rescue workers were on the scene almost immediately. A temporary morgue was set up in the hotel parking lot.
Early reports said two bodies were found in the hotel's laundry room and another in the west wing.
The Marion County coroner's office has requested dental records in hopes of identifying the five other victims, all badly burned. The Federal Bureau of Investigation was called in to help with dental records and fingerprints.
On Monday night, 108 people were registered at the hotel. Authorities estimated that 65 had checked out by the time of the crash.
The crash destroyed several cars in the hotel parking lot, knocked a gaping hole in the front of the building, shattered windows up to the sixth floor and charred the face of the building.