INDIANAPOLIS, OCT. 21 -- The pilot of the Air Force jet fighter that crashed into a hotel lobby Tuesday morning, killing nine people, said he tried to drop the plane into a grassy field when he knew he could not reach Indianapolis International Airport, according to witnesses.
Instead, he told them, the plane began turning upside down. Maj. Bruce L. Teagarden pulled the eject handle and parachuted safely into the parking lot of the Ace Supply Co. while his plane whirled out of control for four blocks, slammed into the front of the Ramada Inn and burst into flames.
"I tried to miss that little hotel," Teagarden was quoted as saying by Bill Meadors, an Ace welder who watched the pilot tumble across the blacktop, still tethered to his red-and-white parachute. Meadors went outside to help Teagarden, who seemed dazed, but otherwise unhurt.
"He said, 'I want to call my wife and my base. I need to use your phone,' " Meadors said. "He said, 'I wanted to put it in this grassy strip back here.' "
Inside, Teagarden sipped from his canteen and asked the startled employes at Ace Supply for a glass of water. "He asked what city he was in," said Linda Schwarzkopf, the company's accountant.
Meadors told the pilot to call collect. Teagarden first telephoned his wife to say he was all right.
"He said, 'I'm in a little warehouse in Indianapolis,' " Meadors said.
Then Teagarden called his commanding officer, Schwarzkopf said, to tell him "that the plane wasn't armed and that he was the only one on the plane. He spoke very low for a long time."
Teagarden, 35, was listed in good condition yesterday at the Army hospital at Fort Benjamin Harrison near here, where a six-man Air Force investigation team planned to interview him as the Air Force tries to determine why the A7D Corsair II's engine quit at 31,000 feet.
Few other details about the cause of the crash emerged today. An official Mishap Investigation Board, headed by Col. Michael Lynch, vice commander of the 58th Tactical Training Wing at Luke Air Force Base in Arizona, assembled at the scene to retrieve the wreckage.
The plane, Air Force officials said, had been refueled and inspected by mechanics before Teagarden took off Tuesday morning from the Greater Pittsburgh International Airport. Teagarden had flown to Pittsburgh to attend the funeral of a colleague and was performing his proficiency check, required annually, in the process. He was headed back to Nellis Air Force Base near Las Vegas when the engine quit somewhere near the Ohio-Indiana border.
Air Force officials said the plane's engine had flown 1,100 hours since it was last overhauled and was not scheduled to be overhauled again for another 400 hours.
Teagarden has 2,000 hours of flying time, all but 220 in F4 Phantom or A7 jets, Air Force officials said. He had never been involved in an accident and is considered an accomplished fighter pilot.
Air Force officials said the flame used to burn fuel inside the engine apparently went out soon after Teagarden took off. The flame, which performs roughly the same function as spark plugs in an automobile, can be restarted in midair under some circumstances, they said. Teagarden told investigators and employes at Ace that he was still trying to restart the engine when the plane had dropped to 10,000 feet.
About 9:10 a.m., Teagarden radioed air traffic controllers in Indianapolis, "We've got no engine. No time to start them."
Aviation sources said Teagarden told controllers he was on "deadstick," meaning he had no power, and asked for the elevation of the airfield -- 797 feet.
A layer of thick cloud obscured the ground, and visibility at the airport was only 800 feet.
As Teagarden approached the airport, he was still at 2,700 feet. Controllers suggested that he circle to the right and try for another runway, but when the jet dropped below the clouds Teagarden told them he would not be able to make it.
"Looks like I may have to get out of it," he told controllers. "I'm going down in a housing area."
Meador, the welder, said Teagarden told him he ejected when the plane was 100 feet off the ground. The pilot later told an Indianapolis policeman that the plane was not headed into the hotel when he ejected, but then he saw it veer toward the Ramada Inn as he fell to the ground.
As Air Force accident investigators sifted through the charred debris at the hotel, the Marion County coroner's office identified the nine victims, all hotel employes.
One of the victims identified today was Christopher Lee Evans, 21, a bellboy whose mother said he telephoned moments after the crash. Evans was working at the front desk when the plane smashed into the lobby and exploded into a fireball that engulfed the front of the seven-story, 155-room hotel.
Barbara Evans told reporters her son had called her and said, "Mom, I think I'm going to be okay."
Then the line went dead.