GOLDMAN, Mo. Gov. Mel Carnahan's death in the crash of a small plane piloted by his son sent Missouri into mourning for the beloved politician Tuesday and cut short one of the hardest-fought Senate races in the nation.
The twin-engine plane went down Monday night in rain and fog south of St. Louis en route to a campaign rally, killing the 66-year-old Carnahan, his 44-year-old son Roger Carnahan and an aide, Chris Sifford, 37. No one else was aboard.
The cause of the crash was not immediately known, but Federal Aviation Administration spokeswoman Elizabeth Isham Cory said the pilot reported a "gyro problem" shortly before the plane vanished from radar. A gyroscope is a dashboard instrument that helps the pilot with basic orientation and sense of horizon distinguishing level flight from banking, turning from straight and climbing from descent.
The remains of the victims were not immediately recovered. Members of the National Transportation Safety Board said a report would take months to complete.
The Cessna 335 took off from an airport in Cahokia, Ill., across the Mississippi River from St. Louis, for a 145-mile flight to New Madrid, where the governor was to attend a Monday night rally.
Visibility at the time was three-fourths of a mile to two miles. The plane registered to a law firm where Roger Carnahan was a partner crashed 25 miles south of St. Louis in hilly, wooded country. Sifford had paged the state Democratic Party director and told him the plane had encountered lightning and would return to St. Louis or Jefferson City, state Sen. Jerry Howard said.
Tom Hunter, who lives near the crash site, said he heard the plane flying overhead and thought it sounded like it was in a steep dive.
"I thought, 'What a crazy person in this kind of weather,"' Hunter told St. Louis TV station KMOV. He said he heard an explosion and the sky turned red. "That was it," he said. "It was total silence. I told my wife to call 911."
Roger Carnahan received his pilot's license in 1988 and was authorized to fly aircraft both by sight and using only instruments. "He was as close as it comes to the top when it comes to training," Cory said.
Carnahan, the son of a seven-term congressman, won his first public election at 26 as a municipal judge in his hometown of Rolla. He was elected to the Missouri House two years later and served two terms.
He served as state treasurer, and was elected lieutenant governor in 1988. Four years later, he won the governor's office in a landslide and was re-elected in 1996. He was barred by state law from seeking a third consecutive term.