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Published: Thursday, 7/31/2008

Small jet crashes in Minnesota; at least 8 killed

ASSOCIATED PRESS

OWATONNA, Minn. Eight people died and a ninth was unaccounted for after a business jet carrying casino and construction executives crashed in heavy weather Thursday at the Owatonna city airport, authorities said.

Seven people were dead at the scene after the Raytheon Hawker 800, a charter jet flying from Atlantic City, N.J., went down while trying to land at Owatonna Degner Regional Airport. An eighth died later Thursday at a hospital.

One person was unaccounted for, although Steele County Sheriff Gary Ringhofer said it was possible that person had never gotten on the flight. The National Transportation Safety Board was sending a team to investigate.

Owatonna, a town of about 25,000 an hour south of Minneapolis, was just coming through a stretch of severe weather when the crash happened around 9:30 a.m. The jet, owned by East Coast Jets Inc., was carrying passengers with business at Viracon Inc., a glass manufacturing company based in Owatonna.

Atlantic City Mayor Scott Evans told The Associated Press that two high-ranking executives from Revel Entertainment, which is building a $2 billion hotel-casino project in Atlantic City, and several employees of Tishman Construction were on board the plane that crashed. He did not know their identities, but said Revel CEO Kevin DeSanctis was not aboard the plane. Tishman is helping with the revel project, a company spokesman said.

Ringhofer didn't have specific information about the weather at the time, but said it was dark, windy and raining heavily. Other witnesses said the weather was easing at the time of the crash.

Ringhofer said the plane appeared to have crashed in a corn field northwest of the airport. It broke apart, scattering debris on either side of a gravel road. The crash site wasn't visible to reporters, but other corn in the area is about 5 feet high and it's difficult to see far into the fields.

Cameron Smith, a mechanic at the airport, said he spoke by radio with the jet's pilot just minutes before the crash. The pilot was about to land and was asking where he should park for fuel, Smith said.

He ran to the crash scene to see if anyone could be helped, but saw only a long skid path and debris that he described repeatedly as "shredded."

"I was amazed to hear that someone survived," he said. "There was no fuselage. There were just parts."

Quinn Johnson, an assistant manager at the Happy Chef some 3 miles from the airport, didn't see the crash, but heard it. She said she thought it was a tornado.

"It lasted, I'm guessing, probably 15, 20 seconds, maybe slightly longer than that. It was a really, really loud, kind of a rumbling, screechy type noise," Johnson said.

Both Smith and Johnson said the crash happened after the worst of the storm had passed, with the sky clearing and only light rain.

The plane had been scheduled to land at 9:42 a.m., then take off at 11:40 a.m. for Crossville, Tenn.

Viracon earlier this year was awarded a contract to supply glass to the World Trade Center replacement project. The company's president, Don Pyatt, told the Owatonna People's Press that the customers were from "a couple of different companies" who were coming to the plant to discuss a project in Las Vegas.

Pyatt gave no other details, and didn't return a call from The Associated Press.

Mary Ann Jackson, a spokeswoman for Viracon's parent company Apogee Enterprises Inc., confirmed to AP that the people on the plane were customers of Viracon but declined to provide any other details. She said no Viracon employees were involved in the crash.

The airport lies alongside Interstate 35 as it skirts Owatonna's western edge. The airport's Web site describes it as "ideal for all classes of corporate aircraft use" with an all-weather instrument landing system. "Maintaining access to Owatonna's business community in all weather conditions is a priority," the site says.

Sharon Gordon, a spokeswoman for the South Jersey Transportation Authority, which operates Atlantic City International Airport, said the East Coast Jets plane landed at the airport at 7:10 a.m. from its base in Allentown, Pa.

It picked up several passengers, although there is confusion about how many actually got in the plane, she said.

"We really don't know the total amount," she said. "It turned around very quickly, leaving at 8:13 a.m., and required no services on the ground."

Toni Evans, an executive assistant for the SOSH architectural firm in Atlantic City, said at least some of those on board the plane were affiliated with the company, though they were not employees of it.

"They were from a couple of different companies," she said. "We've been asked not to say anything further about it at this point. We don't know who survived and who didn't."

She said the people affiliated with the firm were New Jersey residents.

SOSH specializes in designing casino projects. It is helping design the $2 billion Revel Entertainment casino-hotel project in Atlantic City, and the $333 million Buffalo Creek casino-hotel project in upstate New York for the Seneca Nation, among other projects.



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