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Plane crash kills 18

John Colson

A chartered jet crashed just short of the Aspen Airport runway Thursday night, killing all 18 people aboard.

The twin-engine Gulfstream III broke apart upon impact and burst into flames in an open field “a few hundred yards” short of the runway, according to Pitkin County Deputy Sheriff Joe DiSalvo. The plane crashed around 7 p.m.

The airport tower did not receive a distress call before the crash, according to unconfirmed reports.

Authorities did not release the names of the 15 passengers and three crew members scheduled to be aboard Thursday night, pending notification of families. A sheriff’s representative said some people had called the airport inquiring about the crash, but as of 11 p.m. none of the bodies from the crash had been identified.

Allen Kenitzer, a spokesman for the Federal Aviation Administration in Seattle, said the plane had taken off from Los Angeles International Airport en route to Aspen. Initial reports indicated that the plane originally took off from Burbank, Calif., before stopping briefly in Los Angeles.

The plane apparently was approaching the runway from the west and preparing to land when it grazed the top of a Shale Bluffs hillside northwest of the airport. The plane crashed onto the lower slope of a hill about 50 yards from Colorado Highway 82, DiSalvo said.

Crash debris was scattered across the fields west of the runway as well as on the upvalley lanes of Highway 82, parallel to the runway.

At least one passenger, still strapped into a seat, was thrown as far as the shoulder of the highway, and other bodies were strewn about the field and hillside where the plane came to a stop.

A Roaring Fork Transit Agency bus reportedly pulled over to the side of the highway to avoid being hit by flying debris, and a witness who drove by the crash site said there was a wheel from the plane in an upvalley lane.

Witnesses reported that visibility was severely limited due to a snow squall at the time of the crash.

“It was snowing real hard at that very moment,” said Larry Wertheimer, 41, a tourist from New York City who was driving by as the plane came down.

“The visibility was very, very bad,” he continued in a telephone interview. “Five minutes on either side of it, it was good visibility. But right then, you could hardly drive … and right then I saw a flash, and I thought it hit a car. It was terrible.”

Wertheimer and his 10-year-old son, Cameron, said they were afraid their car had been hit by flying debris.

“I was in the car, and I was there when it exploded,” Cameron recalled. “Everything just went yellowish white, and I felt the car vibrate. I thought the car was hit by something, but there was nothing on it.”

“If any debris would’ve hit any car, it would’ve hit our car,” his father added. “I thought that was the end of it.”

The plane was demolished, according to reports from emergency workers on the scene.

“The main body of the plane is a mangled-up mess,” one fire official was heard to remark over the police scanner.

The plane reportedly was leased by Petersen Aviation/Airborne Charter Inc., a charter service out of Burbank, Calif. It was reported that the plane belonged to a Hollywood movie producer, Andrew Vajna, who produced such films as “Total Recall” and “Basic Instinct.” But Vajna was not among those listed as passengers on the fatal flight, according to news reports.

The Associated Press reported that Colorado Gov. Bill Owens flew into the Aspen Airport shortly after the crash. He was scheduled to attend a meeting of the Republican Governors’ Association at the St. Regis Hotel on Friday.

At least four Republican governors were scheduled to meet in Aspen, but none were believed to be on the plane, said Dick Wadhams, spokesman for Gov. Owens.

Owens, Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Ridge, Connecticut Gov. John Rowland and Wyoming Gov. Jim Geringer were flying from Denver to Aspen but were not on the plane that crashed, Wadhams said.

Wadhams said he spoke to Owens from the plane about 8:45 p.m. They were unsure where the plane would land.

Pitkin County spokeswoman Hilary Smith said some planes were allowed to land after the crash, because a number of aircraft were stacked in a holding pattern awaiting landing instructions. But it could not be determined at press time whether the plane carrying the governor was one of those that landed.

Highway 82 closed in both directions at 7:15 p.m. and was still closed as of 12:15 Friday morning.

Investigators with the National Transportation Safety Board were scheduled to arrive early Friday morning.

Reporters Scott Condon, Jennifer Davoren, Allyn Harvey, Tim Mutrie and Brent Gardner-Smith contributed to this article.

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