ON THIS DAY: April 4, 1991, Midair collision claims life of Sen. John Heinz, six others

A series of tragic missteps ended with burning wreckage falling onto an elementary school playground outside Philadelphia on April 4, 1991. Two young girls were killed along with all on board the two aircraft that collided. The dead included Senator John Heinz III. Sen. Heinz, 52, was a moderate Pennsylvania Republican from the family that founded the H.J. Heinz Company.

Sen. Heinz was traveling to a meeting in Philadelphia on board a two-engine Piper Aerostar plane along with two pilots. The pilots reported trouble with landing gear indicator lights, which led to an aborted landing at Philadelphia International Airport. The pilots could see the landing gear in a reflection off of the plane’s propeller spinners, but the lock light would not illuminate.

Air traffic controllers at the airport advised the pilots to maintain their altitude as a Bell 412SP helicopter with two crew members was leaving the airport below them. The helicopter’s crew, hearing the exchange, volunteered to look at the Piper’s landing gear and then confirmed that it appeared to be down.

The pilots of Sen. Heinz’s plane were unsatisfied with the observations of the helicopter crew, insisting that they knew the gear was down but not whether it was locked.

The controllers cleared the airport of other traffic and alerted the airport’s rescue and fire fighting units of an impending emergency landing. The pilots were then offered the option of doing a flyby of the control tower to get visual confirmation that the landing gear was deployed. After the flyby, controllers again confirmed that the gear was down, but the pilots remained concerned.

Still in the area, the helicopter crew again volunteered to take a close look at the Piper’s landing gear by flying alongside it. Controllers agreed, but told the Piper’s pilots to hold their course until directed to return to the airport. The helicopter, in direct communication with the pilots of Sen. Heinz’s plane, flew along the left side of the plane, passed underneath, and began rising on the right side as they inspected the landing gear.

The helicopter crew confirmed the landing gear looked good and pilots responded they were ready to attempt a landing, saying “Okay, appreciate that. We’ll start to turn in.” Controllers heard a loud noise on the radio and then cleared the Piper to turn left back to the airport, but it was too late.

NTSB investigators later determined that it was likely that the pilots of Sen. Heinz’s plane turned to the right and into the path of the helicopter’s rotor blades, without waiting for clearance from air traffic controllers. Both aircraft were damaged beyond control and began shedding debris as they fell to fiery impacts in the school yard of Merion Elementary School.

All those on board both aircraft were killed, including Sen. Heinz.

Two 6-year-old schoolgirls, first-graders Lauren Freundlich and Rachel Blum, were playing outside during noon recess when they were killed by flaming debris.

A third student, 7-year-old second-grader David Rutenberg, was severely burned, his footsteps melted into the school carpet where he ran for help. Quick action by custodian John Fowler and reading specialist Ivy Weeks saved his life, but Rutenberg was hospitalized for six months and endured at least a dozen surgeries. Fowler and Weeks were both injured and burned as they ripped him from his fuel-permeated jacket and tried to extinguish the flames.

Even so, it could have been far worse had either aircraft hit the school building where 570 students were in attendance. The plane crashed in front of the school and the helicopter behind it, clearing the roof by mere inches. Fifteen minutes later hundreds of children would have been on the playground.

Sen. Heinz’s body was identified by the band of his wristwatch and his American Express card. His pilots were identified as Richard Shreck and Trond Stegen. The helicopter was crewed by Charles H. Burke and Michael Pozzani.

Five days after the crash, the stunned family, friends and colleagues of Sen. Heinz gathered at Heinz Chapel to mourn.

Sen. Heinz was a wealthy and well-liked politician who earned degrees at Yale and Harvard. Over his 20 years on Capitol Hill, first as a congressman and then for three terms as a senator, his name had often been mentioned in conversations about future campaigns for governor and president.

His warmth and personal charisma crossed party lines and he was the first Republican to win every ward in the city of Pittsburgh during his 1976 campaign for the senate. He built a reputation for focusing on the needs of the elderly, the steel industry and the environment and held more than 500 town hall meetings with his constituents.

He married Maria Teresa Thierstein Simões-Ferreira after meeting the University of Geneva student during a summer break. They had three children. Following his death, Teresa Heinz married his senate colleague John Kerry in 1995. Kerry ran as the Democratic presidential candidate in 2004 and later served as the U.S. Secretary of State during the Obama administration.

NTSB investigators later confirmed in their accident report that there is no visual way to confirm a front landing gear is locked on that aircraft, calling it “appallingly poor judgment” by the pilots to accept the offer of a close visual inspection by the helicopter crew.

Investigators also faulted the judgment of both flight crews for failing to maintain proper separation and coordination of their aircrafts, noting that the helicopter pilot was knowingly “undertaking a futile and ultimately unsafe task” because the upper cockpit windows were painted over, which gave him poor upward visibility. It was also considered a possibility that the close proximity of the aircraft created an aerodynamic interaction that may have pulled them suddenly into each other.

The NTSB also criticized both flight crews for attempting to conduct the in-flight inspection over a densely populated area when the Piper had plenty of fuel and time to fly to “an area that presented the least possible risk to the community.”

Furthermore, the NTSB stated that once the pilots of Sen. Heinz’s plane had visually confirmed the gear was down (by seeing it in the reflection from the plane’s propeller spinners), there was no further need to inspect it and an emergency landing should have been made, as “a nose gear collapse after landing does not generally result in a major accident or occupant injury.”

Air traffic controllers were determined to have acted in accordance with all procedures in their efforts to provide assistance.