At least 8 killed in Owatonna plane crash

Published 1:44 pm Thursday, July 31, 2008

A small jet crashed in strong thunderstorms Thursday while preparing to land at a regional airport in Minnesota, killing at least eight people, including several casino and construction executives.

Sheriff Gary Ringhofer said there were at most nine people aboard the Raytheon Hawker 800, which went down at a regional airport about 60 miles south of the Twin Cities. He said investigators were looking into whether there was a passenger who is unaccounted for.

Seven people were dead at the scene. One died later at a hospital.

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Atlantic City Mayor Scott Evans told The Associated Press that those on board included two high-ranking executives from Revel Entertainment, which is building a $2 billion hotel-casino project in Atlantic City, and several employees of Tishman Construction. He didn’t know their identities, but said Revel CEO Kevin DeSanctis was not on board. Tishman is helping with the Revel project, a company spokesman said.

Revel spokeswoman Lauren Avellino Turton confirmed in a written statement that several of the company’s employees were killed aboard a plane that was chartered by Revel Entertainment.

“Revel is mourning the loss of several of its team members,” the statement read. “The design team was heading to Minnesota for a glass manufacturing meeting.”

She said the names of the dead would not be released until family members could be contacted, and did not say how many Revel employees were killed.

Owatonna is home to Viracon Inc., a glass manufacturing company that earlier this year was awarded a contract to supply glass to the World Trade Center replacement project.

Mary Ann Jackson, a spokeswoman for Viracon’s parent company Apogee Enterprises Inc., confirmed to AP that the people on the plane were customers of Viracon but declined to provide any other details. She said no Viracon employees were involved in the crash.

The charter jet, flying from from Atlantic City, N.J., to Owatonna, a town of 25,000, went down in a cornfield northwest of Degner Regional Airport, scattering debris, Ringhofer said. The wreckage was not visible to reporters because tall corn obscured the crash site.

Cameron Smith, a mechanic at the airport, said he spoke by radio with the jet’s pilot just minutes before the crash. The pilot was about to land and was asking where he should park for fuel, Smith said.

He ran to the crash scene to see if anyone could be helped, but saw only a long skid path and debris that he described as “shredded.” He also saw the body of one victim lying outside the debris.

“I was amazed to hear that someone survived,” he said. “There was no fuselage. There were just parts.”

Quinn Johnson, an assistant manager at a restaurant about three miles from the airport, didn’t see the crash, but heard it. She initially thought it was a tornado.

“It lasted, I’m guessing, probably 15, 20 seconds, maybe slightly longer than that. It was a really, really loud, kind of a rumbling, screechy type noise,” Johnson said.

The debris was scattered 500 feet beyond the airport’s runway.

The plane was carrying two pilots. Late Thursday, the Dakota County coroner was on the scene working to identify victims.

Tishman Construction identified one of them as Karen Sandland, a project manager on the Revel casino-hotel project, who worked out of Tishman’s Newark, N.J. office.

The crash happened as severe weather battered parts of southern Minnesota. An hour before the accident, a 72 mph wind gust was reported in Owatonna, according to the National Weather Service.

Both Smith and Johnson said the crash happened after the worst of the storm had passed, with the sky clearing and only light rain.

The plane had been scheduled to land at 9:42 a.m., then take off at 11:40 a.m. for Crossville, Tenn.

The airport lies alongside Interstate 35 as it skirts Owatonna’s western edge. The airport’s Web site describes it as “ideal for all classes of corporate aircraft use” with an all-weather instrument landing system. “Maintaining access to Owatonna’s business community in all weather conditions is a priority,” the site says.

Sharon Gordon, a spokeswoman for the South Jersey Transportation Authority, which operates Atlantic City International Airport, said the East Coast Jets plane landed at the airport at 7:10 a.m. from its base in Allentown, Pa.

It picked up several passengers, although there is confusion about how many actually got in the plane, she said.

Toni Evans, an executive assistant for the SOSH architectural firm in Atlantic City, said at least some of those on board the plane were affiliated with the company, though they were not employees of it.

“They were from a couple of different companies,” she said. “We’ve been asked not to say anything further about it at this point. We don’t know who survived and who didn’t.”

She said the people affiliated with the firm were New Jersey residents.

SOSH specializes in designing casino projects. It is helping design the $2 billion Revel Entertainment casino-hotel project in Atlantic City, and the $333 million Buffalo Creek casino-hotel project in upstate New York for the Seneca Nation, among other projects.

Minnesota plane crashes with at least six deaths, from 1974 to the present:

—Oct. 25, 2002, Eveleth, Beech King Air 100, eight people including U.S. Sen. Paul Wellstone.

—Dec. 1, 1993, Hibbing, Jetstream BA3100, 18 people.

—July 12, 1978, Faribault, Beech 60, six people.

—Sept. 11, 1974, Austin, Piper PA-23, six people.

—Aug. 10, 1974, Fergus Falls, Piper PA-23, eight people.

—Aug. 9, 1974, Jackson, Piper PA-30, six people.