Medical examiner: Chief pilot tested negative for alcohol, drugs
by Larry Oakes, Star Tribune, 30 October 2002
DULUTH -- The body of the chief pilot of Sen. Paul Wellstone's chartered plane tested negative for alcohol and a list of commonly abused drugs, the St. Louis County medical examiner said Tuesday.
Dr. Thomas Uncini also said autopsies have found no evidence that Capt. Richard Conry or first officer Michael Guess had any health problems or emergencies that would have played a role in the crash. A test for the presence of drugs or alcohol in Guess' body was pending.
The crash killed Paul and Sheila Wellstone, their daughter, Marcia Wellstone Markuson, DFL Party official Mary McEvoy, Wellstone aides Tom Lapic and Will McLaughlin, and the pilots.
Uncini said all eight suffered "traumatic injuries" of the type that often kill crash victims, but that it's too early to say for certain that these caused their deaths.
"This case had a fire, so I have to make sure the fire didn't kill them," Uncini said. "It can be important for family members to know whether or not they were alive when the fire started."
To make that determination, he's using a microscope to examine tissues from the "airways" of the bodies for the presence of soot, and he's sent other tissue samples to a Federal Aviation Administration laboratory, to be tested for the presence of carbon monoxide.
Uncini called the crash "a terrible tragedy." It's not the first high-profile plane crash he's helped investigate. His office handled the autopsies of the state's deadliest plane crash: that of Northwest Airlink Flight 5719 as it approached the Hibbing airport on Dec. 1, 1993, killing all 18 aboard.
He said an autopsy for a high-profile cases is conducted in the same methodical way as any other case, but under more pressure for fast answers.
"What does change is that you're dealing far more with the press," he said. "Here, because of the number that died and the fact that they include a United States senator, you tend to try to move faster."
Some pilots have raised the possibility that a bird could have smashed the windshield of the cockpit, a rare occurrence but one that can cause serious control problems if it does happen. However, Uncini said Tuesday that he saw no feathers or similar evidence.
Meanwhile all but a few of the 17 National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) investigators assigned to the crash returned to Washington, D.C., Tuesday, having completed much of the on-scene work they could do at the crash site.
Those remaining shipped the mangled twin engines recovered from the Beechcraft King Air A100 from a hanger at the Eveleth-Virginia Airport to their manufacturer, Pratt & Whitney of Canada, for an NTSB-supervised teardown in an attempt to see if they malfunctioned. The propellers were shipped Monday to a separate manufacturer.
They also worked on arrangements with the charter operator's insurance company for the removal of portions of a wing, tail and other parts of the plane from the thick woods where the crash occurred.
"It looks like they'll be pulling wreckage out of the woods [Wednesday]," said Frank Mathews, a flight instructor for Taconite Aviation at the airport. "Once those engines were gone, it got pretty quiet around here."
NTSB spokesman Paul Schlamm said eight groups of investigators, working in teams assigned to probe such things as "air worthiness," "air-traffic control" and "weather," will eventually write "factual reports" of what they learned about the crash and its background.
The reports will be published as part of a "public docket," several months from now. After the public has had time to digest and comment on those reports in a public hearing, a five-member board issues a determination of the accident's probable cause or causes, along with safety recommendations.
The process could take many months, Schlamm said.
During that time, Minnesotans are left to speculate and wonder. Flight instructor Mathews, who frequently flies in and out of the Eveleth-Virginia airport, said that something unusual caused the plane to slowly turn off its westward course to the runway and crash.
Either something in the plane was malfunctioning or the pilots faced a distraction or disorientation that kept them from realizing the plane was in trouble until it was too late to recover, he said.
Copyright © 2002 Star Tribune
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