A Learjet carrying golf champion Payne Stewart and four other people flew uncontrolled over the nation's heartland for hours today before crashing in South Dakota, killing everyone aboard.
The twin-engine plane, which took off from Orlando, Fla., may have suffered a pressurization failure during its scheduled flight to Dallas, government officials said.
Stewart, who lived in Orlando, had been expected in Houston on Tuesday for practice rounds in advance of the Tour Championship,
the PGA Tour's final tournament of the year for the top 30 players on its money list. Stewart, known for his trademark knickers and
tam-o'-shanter hat, went to Southern Methodist University in Dallas and still had friends in the area.
"It is difficult to express our sense of shock and sadness over the death of Payne Stewart," PGA Tour Commissioner Tim Finchem said in a statement from PGA headquarters in Ponte Vedra Beach,
"This is a tremendous loss for the entire golfing community and all of sports. He will always be remembered as a very special
competitor and one who contributed enormously to the positive image of professional golf."
Also killed were Stewart agents Robert Fraley and Van Ardan and the two pilots, said Bill Curry, a spokesman for Stewart's family.
Fraley was CEO of Leader Enterprises Inc. and Ardan was president of the sports management company.
The plane, a Lear 35 built in 1976, took off from Orlando, Fla., at about 9:20 a.m. EDT, and the last communication came was it was
over Gainesville, Fla., said Tony Molinaro, a Federal Aviation Administration spokesman in Chicago.
The jet had flown as high as 45,000 feet and the crew did not respond to repeated inquiries from air traffic controllers, said Paul Turk, an FAA spokesman.
An Air Force fighter jet from Tyndall, Fla., was diverted from a routine training flight to check out the jet, Air Force officials said. Two fighters from Eglin Air Force Base, Fla., then took over to follow it and they later handed off the monitoring to two Air National Guard F-16s from Tulsa, Okla.
About four hours after takeoff, the plane crashed in a grassy field two miles west of Mina, S.D., in the north-central part of
the state, said Gene Abdallah, superintendent of the South Dakota Highway Patrol. There were no survivors, South Dakota Gov. Bill
"The plane had pretty much nosed straight into the ground," said Lesley Braun, who lives about two miles from the site. "There's not a lot of debris spread out a long ways."
She said her husband was among those who saw the plane coming down. "They saw it nose down so they hopped in the vehicle and
raced towards where it was going down and were the first ones on the scene," she said.
No one on the ground was hurt, White House spokesman Joe Lockhart said.
Stewart, 42, was one of the most recognizable players in golf because of his trademark clothing. He won 18 tournaments around the
world, including three major championships.
In June, he won his second U.S. Open, prevailing over Phil Mickelson with a 15-foot putt, the longest putt to ever decide that
championship on the final hole.
"I'm proud of the fact that my faith in God is so much stronger and I'm so much more at peace with myself than I've ever been in my life," Stewart said after the win. "Where I was with my faith last year and where I am now is leaps and bounds."
Today, visitors, including fellow golfer Mark O'Meara, began arriving at Stewart's home in an exclusive Orlando community. A neighbor, visibly upset, jumped into a car next door.
The Rev. Jim Henry, retired pastor for First Baptist Church of Orlando who used to minister to the Stewart family, was one of
those outside the home.
"He was a wonderful Christian who had Christ in his life and somehow in his death," Henry said. "That brought a great sense of peace to his family in a difficult and tragic time."
Stewart and his wife, Tracey, had two children, Chelsea, 13, and Aaron, 10.
In Texas, fellow golfer Duffy Waldorf, preparing to practice today, told KTRH-AM in Houston that he considered turning around
and going home when he heard the news.
"He's an irreplaceable guy, not just for his playing record," Waldorf said, citing Stewart's unmistakable presence on the course and the consistency of his play.
Lockhart said two FAA officials had been dispatched to the scene of the crash, as had a National Transportation Safety Board
Planes that fly above 12,000 feet are normally pressurized, because passengers would have difficulty breathing the thin air above that altitude.
If there is a pressurization problem, those aboard the aircraft could slowly lose consciousness or, if an aircraft broke a door or
window seal, perish in seconds from hypoxia, or oxygen deficiency.
Once reaching a cruise altitude, pilots often switch on the autopilot. If they passed out, the plane would cruise until it ran out of fuel.
John Nance, a commercial airline pilot and aviation author, said he can't recall an incident in which a civilian jet depressurized
"Certainly we have had some incidents in military aviation that make this all too sadly familiar, but not in civil aviation," he said.