Few Clues Reported in Crash Fatal to 8 American Adventurers
PUNTA ARENAS, Chile (AP) _ The pilot of a plane that crashed into an antarctic glacier killing eight American adventurers and two crewmen said in his last radio message he would try to land through ″a hole in the clouds″ because he couldn’t see the ground, a U.S. consular official said Thursday.
There were conflicting reports about the pilot’s radio communications and about the weather at the time of the crash.
The bodies of the Americans, who died on their way to a New Year’s Eve barbeque at a Chilean antarctic air base, arrived Thursday at this southernmost city on the South American mainland in coffins aboard an air force transport plane. They were to be flown to Santiago, the capital, after autopsies.
The twin-engine Cessna Titan 404 charter plane crashed into a glacier Tuesday night, 30 miles beyond its destination at Lt. Marsh Air Base on King George Island and 744 miles south of Punta Arenas.
Larry Huffman, a U.S. consular official who accompanied the bodies to Punta Arenas, said one of the American men was decapitated and three other bodies were hard to recognize.
With the absence of survivors and conflicting reports about weather conditions and the crash itself, the cause of the disaster remained a mystery.
Huffman, who accompanied Chilean investigators to the base, said the pilot in the crash apparently was unable to see the base landing strip.
″We’re still not sure what caused the crash, but apparently there was a whiteout situation, an overcast that kept the pilot from seeing the ground,″ Huffman said in a telephone interview.
He said the pilot reportedly announced after aborting an authorized landing approach that he was going to try to descend through ″a hole in the clouds.″
That was the pilot’s last radio message to the base, he said.
However, Arturo Silva, a spokesman for the Civil Aeronautics Directorate, said pilot Ivan Martinez Diaz reported nothing on his radio just before crashing, and that there was light fog at the air base but not enough to hinder the pilot’s visibility.
Monterola said he recovered the plane’s flight recorder but reported receiving no significant information from it.
″The crash has no obvious cause,″ Silva said.
The chief air force investigator, Carlos Monterola, told reporters at Punta Arenas after inspecting the wreckage that ″weather conditions were quite bad, below the minimum operating standards,″ at the time of the crash.
The American victims, a collection of retired and working professional men from five states, were on the 11th day of a $6,000-per-person Chilean trip arranged by Hanns Ebensten, a Florida-based tour organizer who specializes in far-flung wildlife and nature expeditions. None had previously visited Antarctica.
″They were adventurous types who had seen most of the world and were looking forward tremendously to Antarctica,″ Ebensten said in a telephone interview from Key West.
″Before they left, I got a telex from Chile telling them to bring formal attire because they were being invited to New Year’s Eve dinner at the base,″ he said. ″It was to be a different kind of experience.″
The dinner is a traditional barbeque with steaks and Chilean wine, served in a huge metal warehouse for 20 air force families who live year-round on the base. The base also has a 40-room lodge used by the Chilean government to promote tourism.
The government’s National Tourism Service issued a statement lamenting the accident but emphasizing that the tour was not part of its own series of charter flights to the base. It said these flights, which use large four- engine Hercules air force transports, would continue in March.
A tourism official, Cristina Perez-Inigo, said the Hercules transport was not available for a New Year’s flight, so the American tour organizer chose the private charter company, Aeropetrel, which had flown 12 groups to Antarctica without mishaps aboard its twin-engine Cessna.