Sen. John Heinz, Six Others, Killed in Air Collision
MERION, Pa. (AP) _ Sen. John Heinz and six others, including two children, were killed Thursday when a helicopter collided with his plane over a schoolyard at midday, authorities said.
The collision occurred as the helicopter was checking the landing gear of the senator’s plane, authorities said.
The children killed were on the ground. Most children were in class at Merion Elementary and only a few were outside at the time of the fiery crash, said John Fowler, head custodian.
″Fifteen minutes later, there would have been 400 kids where the helicopter came down,″ Fowler said.
Heinz, a 52-year-old Republican, was an heir to the H.J. Heinz food empire. He was elected to the U.S. House, representing Pittsburgh, in a special election in 1971 and was re-elected twice. He was elected to the Senate in 1976 and was re-elected in 1982 and 1988.
Heinz and his wife, Teresa, have three children.
The bodies of Heinz and his two pilots were taken to Lankenau Hospital. Officials said the bodies were burned so badly that dental records were being brought from Washington to identify which one was Heinz.
Heinz’s fellow senator from Pennsylvania, Republican Arlen Specter, was ″too upset″ to comment on the death, his office said. A spokesman said the two had been ″very close friends″ as well as colleagues.
Heinz concentrated on issues involving the elderly and on protecting steel from subsidized foreign competition.
He was the second ranking Republican on the Senate Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs Committee and was the ranking GOP member of Banking’s securities subcommittee.
Also killed were two pilots on Heinz’s twin-engine Aerostar PA60, Rick Shreck and Tron Stegan. Their ages were not immediately available. Two pilots in the Bell 412 were identified by an airline spokesman as Charles J. Burke, 42, and Michael Pozzano, 43.
The aircraft burst into flames on impact and showered debris over the old stone houses and manicured lawns in the upper middle class suburb of Philadelphia.
The helicopter wreckage came to rest on the playground about 35 feet from the school. The plane fell to the ground on the other side of the building.
″The room started shaking and the windows blew open,″ said Joelle Morgan, 10, a fifth grader who was in math class at the time. ″The teacher yelled, ‘Fire.’ Everyone was crying. Everyone wanted to go home.″
Three children and two school employees were injured.
Fowler, the custodian, had his hand bandaged from the thumb to the wrist and said he was burned when he caught a boy trying to run into the school from the playground, his clothing on fire.
″The teacher was trying to restrain him, his pants were on fire,″ Fowler said. ″We knocked him down and snuffed it out.″
″I saw two children on the ground,″ said Fowler. ″It was too hot to get close to them.″
Heinz, in his home state for Congress’ Easter recess, was en route from Williamsport-Lycoming County airport to Philadelphia, said his administrative assistant, Cliff Shannon.
Shannon said he had heard reports that the instrument panel on the senator’s plane did not show that the nose landing gear was locked and down.
Township Manager David C. Latshaw said the pilots of a Sun Co. helicopter overheard the pilot of Heinz’s plane report the problem to the tower and went to investigate.
The helicopter was shuttling back and forth from the Philadelphia airport to Sun Co. headquarters taking board members to a directors meeting, said Sun spokesman Dick Jackman.
″The helicopter went up into the plane,″ said Chuck LeGar, a painter working on a school addition when he saw the collision.
Federal Aviation Administration spokesman LeRoy Johnson said the helicopter crew had confirmed the plane’s landing gear was down and the plane was headed for the airport when the two collided. He said their radio conversations were tape-recorded.
The National Transportation Safety Board began compiling information shortly after the crash, but an agency spokesman said it could be four to six months before a report is issued on exactly what happened.
Gov. Robert P. Casey may appoint a successor to serve until a special election can be held in November. Casey, a Democrat, called Heinz ″a distinguished and dedicated son of Pennsylvania.″ But he would not answer reporters’ questions, including whether he would appoint someone to hold the office until November.
Heinz’s term would have ended in January 1995.
″The people of Pennsylvania have lost a great leader and the nation has lost a great senator,″ President Bush, traveling in California, said in a statement.
Vice President Dan Quayle was in Los Angeles to make a speech when he learned of Heinz’ death.
″He was a special friend of mine,″ Quayle said. ″He was a special friend of my wife’s. He always put his country first. He made a significant contribution to this country.″
Former President Reagan also praised Heinz.
″He will be remembered as a young, vigorous man with a selfless commitment to public service and a sense of obligation to society,″ Reagan said in a statement.