LOWER MERION TOWNSHIP, Pa. (WHTM) – April 4, 1991, was a typical day for Pennsylvania U.S. Senator John Heinz – busy.
He started his day in Lycoming County at a press conference about funding for improvements to U.S. Route 15. When the press conference was over he went to Williamsport Airport, and boarded a twin-engine Piper Aerostar airplane, which departed for Philadelphia around 11:30 a.m. with two pilots. The Senator’s next stop was a meeting of the town council of Media.
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As the plane approached Philadelphia International Airport, the pilot saw that a light indicating the nose landing gear was locked into position had not come on. The pilot, Richard Shreck, put the plane into a holding pattern and alerted the control tower.
As it happened, there was a helicopter in flight nearby, a Bell 412 belonging to Sun Oil Company. It was asked to take a look and see if the plane’s landing gear was down.
The crew of the helicopter couldn’t make out whether the gear was down or not from their initial observation position, so they inched in for a closer look. At 12:10 p.m. the two aircraft collided. Both crashed, killing all five occupants.
Worse still, the collision happened over the Merion Elementary School in Lower Merion Township outside Philadelphia. The Piper crashed into the front lawn of the school; the helicopter crashed in the playground – where children were outside for recess. Five people were injured, and two six-year-old schoolgirls were killed.
abc27 covered the story extensively, at the location (I was one of the photographers sent down the day after the crash), up in Williamsport, and in Harrisburg.
In 1992 the National Transportation and Safety Board and the Federal Aviation Administration released the results of their investigations. They put the blame on pilot error in both aircraft. The helicopter crew wouldn’t have been able to determine the status of the landing gear, and the airplane pilots should have made an emergency landing at the nearby Northeast Airport.
The victims of the crash were:
Senator John Heinz
Captain Richard Schreck Piper Aerostar Pilot
Trond Stegen, First Officer, Piper Aerostar
Captain Charles Burke, Bell 412 pilot
First Officer Michael Pozzani, Bell 412
Lauren Freundlich, 2nd Grade
Rachel Blum, 2nd Grade