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Mo. Gov. Killed in Plane Crash

  Missouri Gov. Mel Carnahan was the Democratic candidate in the state's close Senate race. (AP file photo)

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Tuesday's daily roundup of headlines outside the beltway focuses on Missouri's new governor.
By Dan Balz and Mike Allen
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, October 17, 2000; 10:34 AM

ST. LOUIS, Oct. 17 Missouri Gov. Mel Carnahan was killed Monday night when a small plane carrying him to a campaign event crashed in a heavily wooded area in rain and fog, according to state officials.

The governor's office said that the plane was believed to have been carrying Carnahan; his son Roger, known as Randy, who was the pilot; his senior campaign adviser Chris Sifford. "There were no survivors," said Jerry Nachtigal, the governor's press secretary. "We are certain it's the governor, his son, and Chris Sifford, his aide."

Carnahan was finishing his second term as governor and was in the middle of a campaign for the Senate, challenging incumbent Republican Sen. John Ashcroft in one of the most closely contested races in the country. The tragedy greatly reduces Democratic hopes to take control of the Senate.

At 2:25 a.m., in a tiny room at the capitol in Jefferson City, Lt. Gov. Roger B. Wilson (D) announced that he will serve as acting governor until Carnahan's death is officially confirmed. When state officials get forensic confirmation of Carnahan's death, Wilson will be sworn in.

"Governor Carnahan was a great man, a respected man," Wilson said, choking back tears. "He did so many things for so many people. I'd give anything if the confirmation did not occur. But the state of Missouri has a constitution and a procedure. The Disability Board has met. Because of the inability of Governor Carnahan to communicate, I am acting governor at this time. I'm very grateful for the support of the state officials, both in the House and the Senate, and I would like to ask for permission to lean on about 5 million Missourians' shoulders."

Vice President Gore and Texas Gov. George W. Bush were in the St. Louis area preparing for their final presidential debate there Tuesday night. Bush's wife, Laura, who was in St. Louis for the debate, canceled a campaign appearance scheduled for Tuesday morning.

Campaign officials huddled this morning about whether to proceed with the debate, but officials said it was likely to go on. Rep. Richard Gephardt (D-Mo.), the House Minority Leader, said in a phone call to the NBC station in St. Louis, "It's going to be a sad occasion. From what I understand, the commission has made that decision and that, I guess, is the right decision. This is a national debate, and it goes on. But a lot of us will be there with heavy hearts because of this terrible, terrible loss in Missouri."

The plane was a twin-engine Cessna. Rescuers said the wreckage was strewn over several hundred yards, some in deep ravines, in Jefferson County, about 30 miles southwest of St. Louis.

Carnahan had attended a fund-raiser in St. Louis on Monday night and was head to the bootheel of southeast Missouri for a get-out-the-vote conference aimed at minority voters.

"The governor yesterday morning was very excited about this," Nachtigal, the press secretary, said. "He thought it was going to be an exciting meeting."

Nachtigal said both Carnahan and his son were avid pilots and Randy Carnahan had flown his father to many campaign events. Nachtigal said both were careful about the weather. "There were a number of times when the weather looked a little iffy and the governor would say, 'Let's drive.'"

Carol Carmody of the National Transportation Safety Board said at a briefing this morning that a Cessna 335 departed from St. Louis Parks Airport at 6:55 p.m. Central time carrying three passengers -- the governor, his son and a political adviser. The pilot was flying with instruments and the plane dropped off radar at about 7:33 p.m., she said. The first 911 came in at 7:36 p.m., apparently from a citizen, she said.

"We are told the wreckage is very scattered, as are the remains," she said. "There have been no positive identifications yet of either the plane or of the three persons. I do want to say our thoughts are very much with the families at a time which must be extremely difficult for all."

Last night, more than 100 rescue workers went to the scene, where their work was hampered by the rain and fog that had delayed commercial flights in and out of St. Louis earlier in the evening. The search was suspended overnight and continued this morning.

The investigation is expected to take nine months to a year, Carmody said.

Eyewitnesses said the plane went down in a fireball after an explosion that rocked houses in the area. "I didn't hear anything until all of a sudden I just heard this engine, revving for all it's worth," an eyewitness in a ballcap, whose name was not given, said on KDNL Channel 30. "It shook my house a little bit. It sounded like he was going to take my shingles off. And about five to eight seconds later, I heard I didn't hear the whole house shook like someone picked it up about a foot and dropped it. I called 911 and I told them my location and that I heard a plane crash. The guy didn't believe me."

Tom Hunter, a witness, told KTVI Channel 2, "I heard the aircraft flying over and then the engine started into a scream, like a dive. You could tell it was diving. Loud explosion, then the sky lit red, and that was it. Total silence."

Two fire fighters were injured at the scene, which is so rugged that a law-enforcement official said it "takes a billy goat to even get to the scene," KDNL said.

A Federal Aviation Administration spokesman said the National Transportation Safety Board was sending an investigator from Chicago to the scene.

Carnahan, 66, was a popular governor who was elected in 1992 and reelected in 1996 with 57 percent of the vote. Limited to two terms, he decided to challenge the conservative Ashcroft and Democrats counted the Missouri race as one of their best opportunities to pick up a seat in November.

Shortly after the crash, Ashcroft's campaign announced that he would suspend campaigning and pull all television ads and he issued a statement saying, "We hope and pray that this tragedy has not occurred."

Carnahan was born in Birch Tree, Mo., He graduated from George Washington University in 1954 and received his law degree from the University of Missouri in 1959.

Prior to his election as governor, Carnahan served as Missouri treasurer from 1981 to 1985 and lieutenant governor from 1988 to 1992. He also served as majority leader of the state House.

Democratic state treasurer Bob Holden and Republican Rep. Jim Talent are competing to succeed Carnahan.

Lt. Gov. Wilson, who was in St. Louis, was escorted back to Jefferson City by the Missouri Highway Patrol.

Wilson, who turned 52 last week, is a former state senator. He was elected lieutenant governor in 1996 and took office in January 1997. Wilson will be the state's 52nd governor.

Staff writer Don Phillips in Washington contributed to this report.

© 2000 The Washington Post Company

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