Autopsy Could Shed Light on Butte Plane Crash

By Beacon Staff

BUTTE – Authorities investigating a Montana plane crash that killed 14 say an autopsy on the pilot’s body could reveal whether a medical emergency was at fault in the still-unsolved accident.

However, Butte-Silver Bow County Coroner Lee LaBreche cautioned that a complete autopsy may be impossible because of the violent nature of the crash.

“Whether we can complete that or not is a big question,” he said Wednesday.

The plane, carrying three families from California to a Montana ski vacation, diverted from its original destination of Bozeman, Mont., for unknown reasons Sunday afternoon. A half-hour later witnesses saw it nosedive into a cemetery near the Butte airport, killing all aboard.

Seven children ranging in age from 1 to 9 were among the passengers.

Speculation into the cause of the crash has ranged from icing on the plane’s wings, to an overloaded cabin, to a possible heart attack suffered by the plane’s 65-year-old pilot. But no leading theory has emerged, said National Transportation Safety Board Acting Chairman Mark Rosenker.

LaBreche said pinpointing any heart problems could be impossible since damage to the organ’s muscles can take hours to manifest after a heart attack. He said evidence of blocked arteries would be easier to find, but those too could prove elusive given the condition of the victims’ remains.

Those remains are being examined at the Montana State Crime Lab in Missoula but are under LaBreche’s jurisdiction. He said the lab’s staff are using dental records and fingerprints to get positive identification on the victims.

Their names have been previously released by other family members.

The crash probe has been hindered by the plane’s lack of a cockpit voice recorder or flight data recorder, which were not required for the privately operated aircraft.

Investigators recovered an onboard device that tracks the performance of the plane’s engine, but could not say immediately if that would offer any new clues.

Most of the wreckage from the 10-seat Pilatus PC-12 has been moved to a hangar in Bozeman for inspection, said NTSB spokesman Keith Holloway.

The aircraft’s Pratt & Whitney engine was taken to a separate hangar, also in Bozeman, Holloway said. The precise location of the hangars was not disclosed.