Searchers Recover All Bodies From The Wreckage of Brown’s Plane
VELJI DOL, Croatia (AP) _ Struggling against high winds and sheets of rain, searchers today recovered the bodies of Commerce Secretary Ron Brown and 32 others killed when their plane crashed during a storm into a hill strewn with land mines.
``We have found the last victim,″ Croatian Interior Minister Ivan Jarnjak told the state HINA news agency today, confirming that no one survived the crash of the U.S. Air Force plane on Wednesday.
Dubrovnik’s chief pathologist Igor Boric said a temporary morgue was set up at the airport and he expected American pathologists to assist him in identifying the bodies.
Pentagon officials in Washington said 27 passengers and six crew members were on board the T-43 plane, the military version of the Boeing 737, when it slammed into a hill known locally at Sveti Ivan, or St. John.
It had been cleared to land at Dubrovnik airport, which lies south of the historic Adriatic city.
Croatia’s ambassador to the United States, Miomir Zuzul, said the plane first hit the mountain with its right wing, then its right engine. ``The aircraft is not completely destroyed,″ he told Associated Press Television.
Besides Brown and Commerce Department officials, the passengers included New York Times correspondent Nathaniel Nash and about a dozen top American executives exploring business opportunities in the Balkans. A Croatian news photographer for the daily Slobodna Dalmacija newspaper was also on board.
A woman found alive at the scene died as a NATO helicopter carried her to a Dubrovnik hospital.
In Washington, President Clinton called Brown ``a magnificent life force″ and urged prayers for those aboard the lost flight.
Croatian newspapers today echoed the feeling of deep shock in a nation just recovering from 4 1/2 years of Balkan war and hopeful that resorts like Dubrovnik would lure tourists en masse this summer to its stunning Adriatic coast.
``We mourn alongside America,″ the Vjesnik daily said in an editorial under banner headlines: ``Brown’s plane down _ our tragedy too.″
U.S. military officials said searchers arrived at the crash site at 5:50 a.m. today. They joined three Americans who had been lowered in by helicopter earlier and more than 100 Croatian police and 100 French seamen.
Reporters were able to get close enough to the crash site Wednesday to see the plane, its middle burned, resting on its belly on the top of a craggy hill. The area is said to be laced with land mines from the 1991 Serb-Croat war.
``Only a crazy man would go there,″ said Zuzul, the Croatian ambassador.
The plane took off from Tuzla in northern Bosnia, the headquarters for U.S. soldiers with the NATO-led peace mission, after Brown had surprised the troops with McDonald’s hamburgers and sports videotapes.
There was no indication that any of the former warring partners in Bosnia or Croatia attacked the plane. Residents in the coastal village of Velji Dol _ pronounced VEL-yee Duhl _ said it crashed during one of the worst storms in decades.
Croatian President Franjo Tudjman announced a top-level commission of inquiry into the plane crash.
However, investigators will be lacking an essential tool. The Air Force said the 23-year-old plane was not equipped with flight data recorder, unlike commercial planes. The devices record voice transmissions and information about the plane’s systems.
Zuzul said four planes, including one he was flying on, landed at Dubrovnik shortly before Brown’s plane was due, and the landings went normally.
The head of Croatia’s civilian air traffic control, Miljenko Radic, told Croatian state TV that the plane approached Dubrovnik airport ``left of the usual route.″
``It should not have been there,″ he said.
The Air Force said because of the bad weather, the plane was making an instrument approach. Air Force Lt. Gen. Howell Estes said the plane veered off course on its final approach but had not reported any problems.
Brown’s aircraft disappeared from radar screens at 2:52 p.m. (7:52 a.m. EST) between the tiny island of Kalamota, a few miles northwest of Dubrovnik, and the Cilipi airport, Croatian security sources said. Visibility in the area was no more than 100 yards, they said.
The airport is situated in mountainous terrain about three miles inland from the Adriatic Sea. Planes usually approach it from over the water. Before landing, they encounter hills 300 to 600 feet high before a quick descent to the two-mile-long runway.
Ivo Djuricic was on the hill behind his house when he heard the plane overhead. ``It was very strange to hear it,″ he said, ``because planes never fly above here.″
He climbed up the hill until he saw the plane was ``in large pieces, loosely together.″ Then he ran back, jumped in his car and raced to the village to call police.
The plane was the same one used earlier this week in the Balkans by Defense Secretary William Perry and for the recent trip to Bosnia by First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton and her daughter, Chelsea.
Brown, who had planned to spend three days in Bosnia and Croatia, had said he was ``really exhilarated″ by his Wednesday visit to Bosnia.
He praised the soldiers in Tuzla, saying that without the NATO-led force, Bosnians wouldn’t be returning to their homes, families would not be reunited, and meetings between former enemies would not be taking place.
``So all of the United States says thanks to all of you,″ he told them.