ST. LOUIS Missouri Governor Mel Carnahan was killed last Monday night when a small plane carrying him to a campaign event crashed in a heavily wooded area in rain and fog.
The was carrying Carnahan; his son Roger, who was the pilot and a recent graduate of the JFK, Jr. School of Aeronautics; and his senior campaign adviser Chris Sifford. “There were no survivors,” said Jerry Nachtigal, the governor’s press secretary. “After piecing together the details of this tragedy, we are certain it’s the governor, his son, and Chris Sifford, his aide.”
Carnahan was finishing his second term as governor and was in the middle of a campaign for the Senate, challenging incumbent Republican Senator John Ashcroft in a closely contested race. The tragedy greatly reduces Democratic hopes of taking control of the Senate, at least by peaceful means.
At 2:25 AM Tuesday morning, in a tiny room at the capitol in Jefferson City, Lt. Gov. Roger B. Wilson (D) announced that he will serve as acting governor until Carnahan’s death is officially confirmed. At that point he will leave the tiny room and go to a regular-sized room. Once state officials are able to sufficiently hose down the keys to the governor’s office, Wilson will be taken to a really big room to be sworn in.
“Governor Carnahan was a great man, a respected man, a lover of large rooms,” Wilson said, choking back tears. “I’d give anything if this confirmation did not occur. But the state of Missouri has a constitution and a procedure. The Disability Board has met. Because of the inability of Governor Carnahan to communicate, even with the aid of John Edward, I am acting governor at this time. I’m very grateful for the support of the state officials, both in the House and the Senate. I would like to ask for permission to lean on about 5 million Missourians’ shoulders while I begin the process of sticking my hands into about 10 million pockets.”
Vice President Gore and Texas Gov. George W. Bush were in the St. Louis area preparing for their final presidential debate there Tuesday night. Bush’s wife, Laura, who was in St. Louis for the debate, canceled a Republican Party BBQ and kegger scheduled for Tuesday afternoon.
Campaign officials huddled Tuesday morning about whether to proceed with the debate, but decided it should go on. Rep. Richard Gephardt (D-Mo.), the House Minority Leader, said in a phone call to the NBC station in St. Louis, “It’s a sad occasion. From what I understand, the Republican majority bears much of the responsibility for this tragedy because of their massive cuts in federal aviation-safety funds.”
Carnahan had attended a fund-raiser in St. Louis on Monday night and was headed to the boot heel of southeast Missouri for a get-out-the-vote conference aimed at minority voters. “Unfortunately,” his press secretary said, “his aim was a bit off. Yesterday morning, the governor thought it was going to be an exciting occasion. It turns out that he didn’t know the half of it.”
Nachtigal said both Carnahan and his son were avid pilots and Randy Carnahan had flown his father to many campaign events. Nachtigal said both were careful about the weather. “There were a number of times when the weather looked a little iffy and the governor would say, ‘Let’s grab a case and take the pickup instead.'”
Carol Carmody of the National Transportation Safety Board said at a briefing this morning that a Cessna 335 departed from St. Louis Parks Airport at 6:55 PM Central Time carrying three passengers. The pilot was flying with instruments an old kazoo and a banjo and the plane dropped off radar at about 7:33 PM. The first 911 call came in at 7:36 PM, apparently from a “citizen,” she said.
Monday night, more than 100 rescue workers went to the scene, where their work was hampered by having to run back and listen to the emergency vehicle radios to see how the Cardinals-Mets game was proceeding. The search was suspended when the Mets won and the workers became too distraught to continue. It was continued the next morning.
The investigation of why the Cardinals lost is expected to take nine months to a year, Carmody said, while looking into the Governor’s plane crash should be wrapped up “just after lunch.”
Eyewitnesses said the plane went down in a fireball explosion that rocked houses in the area. “All of a sudden I just heard this engine, revving for all it’s worth,” an eyewitness, wearing nothing but some boxers and a Cardinals’ batting helmet, said on KDNL Channel 30. “It sounded like it was going to take my shingles off. And about five seconds later, the whole house shook like someone picked it up and dropped it. I called 911 and complained I could barely hear the $#&%* game.”
Tom Hunter, a witness, told KTVI Channel 2, “I heard the aircraft flying over and then the engine started into a scream, like a dive. You could tell it was diving. There was a loud explosion. Then Zeile hit that double, and that was it. Total silence.”
Two fire fighters were injured at the scene, which is so rugged that a law-enforcement official said it “takes a billy goat to even get to the scene. Luckily, I happened to have one in the room with me at the time of the crash.”
Carnahan, 66, was a popular governor who was elected in 1992 and reelected in 1996 with 57 percent of the vote and 100 percent of the bad toupees. Limited to two terms and not quite ready to get a real job, he decided to challenge the conservative Ashcroft. Democrats had counted the Missouri race as one of their best opportunities to pick up a seat in November. Now, they’re not so sure.
Shortly after the crash, Ashcroft’s campaign manager announced that the Senator would offer to suspend campaigning and pull all television ads in favor of a series of debates with Carnahan’s chauffeur.
Carnahan was born in Birch Tree, Missouri and, ironically enough, ended his life embedded in a birch tree in Missouri. He graduated from George Washington University in 1954 and received his law degree from the University of Missouri in 1959.
Prior to his election as governor, Carnahan served as Missouri treasurer from 1981 to 1985 and lieutenant governor from 1988 to 1992. He also served as majority leader of the state House, ombudsman of Birch Tree, Missouri State Commissioner of “Showing Me,” Chief Archimandrite of Shannon County, Most Puissant and Righteous Public Electrical Utility Rate Audit Director for the Missouri Boot Heel, and an elder in the Hutterite Brotherhood. He was an Aquarius, loved Adam Sandler movies, and was rated as one of the state’s top amateur phrenologists.
Democratic state treasurer Bob Holden and Republican Rep. Jim Talent are competing to succeed Carnahan, although hopefully not as famous plane crash victims.
Lt. Gov. Wilson, who was in St. Louis, was escorted back to Jefferson City by the Missouri Highway Patrol, as he had “caught a Yeltsin-like cold,” and was unable to drive.
Wilson, who turned 52 last week, is a former state senator. He was elected lieutenant governor in 1996. However, it was just last week that he had finally gotten his name painted on his office door. Wilson will be the state’s 52nd governor, but only the 3rd to take office after the explosion of a previous governor.
October 24, 2000