Fiery Fatal Jet Crash Ended an Outing to Support an Education Effort

NTSB investigators at the scene of a plane that plunged down an embankment and erupted in flames during a takeoff attempt Saturday night at Hanscom Field in Bedford, Mass.
NTSB investigators at the scene of a plane that plunged down an embankment and erupted in flames during a takeoff attempt Saturday night at Hanscom Field in Bedford, Mass. –AP/NTSB

BOSTON — At the last minute Saturday, Lewis Katz, a philanthropist and co-owner of The Philadelphia Inquirer, invited Anne Leeds, a longtime friend and neighbor from Longport, New Jersey, to accompany him and two others on a quick day trip to Concord, Massachusetts. They were going up to help support a nonprofit education effort.

The day before, Katz had also invited Edward G. Rendell, the former governor of Pennsylvania. Such spur-of-the-moment invitations from Katz were common, a function of his access to a jet and his spontaneous personality.

While Rendell could not make the trip, Leeds could, and she was ready to go within a couple of hours.

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But on the way home Saturday night, the trip ended in disaster when the plane exploded in a fireball in suburban Boston. Everyone on board — four passengers, two pilots and one cabin attendant — was killed.

The cause of the crash was not immediately known. The private Gulfstream IV never became airborne, according to a witness, an employee at Hanscom Field in Bedford, Massachusetts, where the accident occurred, who spoke to federal investigators.

Instead of lifting off, the aircraft plowed along the ground for 2,000 feet beyond the paved surface of the runway, said Luke Schiada, a senior air safety investigator with the National Transportation Safety Board. The plane struck an antenna and burst through a chain-link fence before stopping in a gully, he said. It was largely consumed by a fuel-fed fire and was left in fragments.

The explosion, at 9:40 p.m. Saturday, shot plumes of black smoke into the night sky, rattled houses nearby and sent an acrid odor as far away as Boston, about 20 miles to the southeast.

In addition to Katz, 72, and Leeds, 74, the passengers were Susan Asbell of Cherry Hill, New Jersey, and Marcella Dalsey, 59, of Haddon Township, New Jersey. Names of the crew members were not released.

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The passengers were longtime friends of Katz, sharing his passion for trying to bolster education opportunities, particularly for children in need, and were enmeshed in the civic life of South Jersey. Katz had invited them to a fundraiser at the Concord, Massachusetts, home of the historian Doris Kearns Goodwin and her husband, Richard Goodwin, an adviser to Presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson.

The event, attended by 200 people, was in support of the Concord River Institute, which was founded by Michael Goodwin, one of the Goodwins’ sons, who is a high school history teacher. The institute’s goal is to improve education around the country for students of all backgrounds and abilities.

Katz had run into Leeds on the beach near their homes in Longport around noon Saturday and invited her to come along, her husband, James P. Leeds Sr., said on Sunday. She had joined him on past trips for various causes, her husband said, including ‘‘anything to do with children and books.’’

Dalsey was president of KATZ Academy Charter School, which she co-founded with Katz. The school, which opened in 2012, is a partnership with the Boys & Girls Club of Camden County and provides a strong academic curriculum and recreational enrichment program to children living in the city of Camden. Dalsey had been a cheerleader for the Philadelphia Eagles in the 1980s.

Asbell, a retired forensic scientist for the New Jersey State Police, had grown up in Camden with Katz and was a founding member with him of the Boys & Girls Club.

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“She was a longtime admirer of Ms. Goodwin,’’ Bernadette Shanahan, the club’s executive director, said Sunday. “I spoke to her about the event on Thursday. She was really looking forward to the trip.’’

Rendell’s office said Sunday that he had a prior commitment and could not make the trip.

The plane left Atlantic City before 3 p.m. Saturday and landed in Massachusetts around 3:45. Anne Leeds told her husband she did not know when she would be home. He received a text from her at 9:36 saying they were on the plane heading back. He did not hear from her again.

Michael Goodwin called the deaths “a crushing and devastating loss.’’ Doris Kearns Goodwin said in a statement that Katz had been a friend of hers for two decades and that the trip showed his commitment to education.

After the fundraiser, she said, “we all went to dinner, where we talked at length about our shared passions for sports and journalism, politics and history.’’

As of Sunday afternoon, investigators had not yet retrieved the plane’s cockpit recorder or its flight data recorder. Their first acts were to remove the bodies from the plane and document “perishable’’ information, such as the skid marks left by the plane’s landing gear before it broke apart.

Schiada of the NTSB said he had no reason to think the explosion was anything other than an accident but added that nothing had been ruled out.

Planes can fail to lift off for a variety of reasons. An engine can fail during the takeoff roll. In winter, ice on the wings can disrupt the airflow and spoil the lift. At any time of year, crews can forget to set the flaps for takeoff. In 2004 an executive jet of a different type, a Challenger, ran off the end of a runway at Teterboro Airport in New Jersey because the NTSB found that the crew had loaded fuel in a way that moved the center of gravity too far forward.

Schiada said that the NTSB would post a preliminary report on its website in 10 days.