There is no timetable for reopening the Aspen-Pitkin County Airport in the wake of Sunday’s crash of a private jet, airport and emergency officials said during a news conference Monday morning.
The crash occurred during a busy time of year for the airport, leaving thousands of commercial airline passengers, many of them on scheduled ski vacations, to find other ways of leaving or coming into town. Pitkin County Sheriff Joe DiSalvo said that as the investigation into the cause of the crash gets underway, safety is still a major concern, given the remaining fuel inside the upside-down airplane and its unstable position on the runway.
A full investigation by the National Transportation Safety Board began Monday, authorities said. The investigators also were waiting on assistance from representatives of the aircraft manufacturer, who were scheduled to arrive Monday afternoon. The plane was a 22-seat Bombardier Challenger 600.
“The airport will remain closed until NTSB gives the go-ahead to clear the wreckage and debris from the runway,” a Sheriff’s Office statement said. “The local incident management team will be working with NTSB to ensure safety at the crash site.”
One man was killed and two men were injured in the crash, which occurred upon landing during a period of high winds in the Aspen area. All three men were pilots. Two were flying the plane and one was a passenger, the Sheriff’s Office said. There was no one else aboard the plane.
Co-pilot Emilio Carranza Brabata, 54, of Mexico, was pronounced dead at the scene, authorities said. The other two men — identified as Miguel Angel Henriquez and Moises Carranza Brabata, also of Mexico — were injured. They initially were taken to Aspen Valley Hospital before being transferred to St. Mary’s Hospital in Grand Junction. Authorities said they did not know who actually was flying the plane when it crashed.
The extent of the injuries is unknown, but Sheriff’s Office spokesman Deputy Alex Burchetta said Sunday that the two men were not hurt by the fire that ignited when the plane hit the runway.
Witnesses describing the crash have said that the plane came into the airport fast and at a steep angle before crashing the runway. It then caught fire and rolled before coming to a rest in an upside-down position. One wing was intact while another wing lay underneath the aircraft.
“Every effort is being made by airport officials to reopen the airport as soon as possible, but safety is of prime concern,” the statement says. “A crane, two front-end loaders and large straps will be used to help stabilize the aircraft while investigators are in the vicinity.”
The wreckage is most visible from Owl Creek Road, about three-quarters of the way down the east-west runway, near the southern side of the airport’s property.
Bill Tomcich, president of reservations firm Stay Aspen Snowmass, said area hotels and lodges are accommodating many of the stranded passengers with discounted rates. He said the three airlines that serve Aspen — United, American and Delta — were assisting travelers by providing bus service between Aspen and airports in Grand Junction and Denver.
Local officials, including the airport’s Assistant Aviation Director Brian Grefe, declined to speculate on the cause of the crash during Monday morning’s news conference. They also said they did not know why the pilots were flying to Aspen. The flight originated in Mexico and stopped in Tucson, Ariz., two hours before it crashed in Aspen.
An NTSB air-safety expert took media questions at a second news conference on Monday afternoon, but did not shed any light into the possible cause of the crash.
Courtney Liebler, of the federal agency’s Denver office, said she is in charge of the Aspen accident investigation.
“What we know to date — and what we are on scene gathering — will encompass the man, the machine and the environment,” Liebler said. “We’re going to be focusing on the flight crew, on the airplane and on the weather.”
The Federal Aviation Administration, aircraft manufacturer Bombardier Inc., General Electric and the Aspen-Pitkin County Airport are assisting the NTSB with the investigation, she said.
She said the initial work would involve stabilizing the aircraft so that investigators could enter it, retrieve the cockpit voice recorder and disable the emergency locator transmitter, “which began pinging after initial impact.”
Liebler said investigators have not spoken with the two surviving pilots at St. Mary’s Hospital because “they are not in a position to speak.” She said she did not know how long it would take to gather enough information so that the wreckage could be removed from the runway, allowing the airport to reopen.
When asked by a reporter if high winds might have played a role in the accident, she said that weather “would be looked at as an aspect. We are not limiting any factors right now. ... At this point we are just collecting facts. We are in the very early stages of the investigation.”
Overall, investigations of airplane crashes take 12 to 18 months to complete, Liebler said.
The airplane was fueled in Mexico and went through a customs check in Tucson, where it did not receive more fuel, she added.
The Aspen-Pitkin County Airport is known for its dangerous approach because of the steep descent required to land. In 2001, 18 people were killed when a Gulfstream III jet from Southern California attempted to land at dusk in Aspen during a brief but intense snowstorm.