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Report On Rick Nelson Plane Crash Centers On Cabin Heater

July 30, 1986

WASHINGTON (AP) _ A federal report on the fiery airplane crash that killed singer Rick Nelson and six others centers on a faulty cabin heater and fails to mention earlier speculation that free-basing cocaine may have caused the blaze.

The report, released Tuesday by the National Transportation Safety Board, drew no conclusions about the New Year’s Eve crash, but included the co- pilot’s assertions that the plane’s cabin heater was ″acting up″ during the flight.

It also noted that the pilot opened vents and windows when the plane began to fill with smoke even though the aircraft’s operating manual said to close all ventilation ducts in theevent of an inflight fire.

Pilot Bradley Rank, 33, and co-pilot Kenneth Ferguson, 45, escaped through the cockpit windows of Nelson’s DC-3 after crash-landing in a farmer’s field near DeKalb, Texas. They suffered second- and third-degree burns.

Ferguson told NTSB investigators that he crawled away from the plane, fearing an explosion, and encountered Rank who said, ″Don’t tell anyone about the heater, don’t tell anyone about the heater, don’t tell anyone about the heater.″

The bodies of Nelson, his fiancee and five members of his band were found in the plane’s cabin, where they had died of smoke inhalation and burns.

The plane had taken off from Guntersville, Ala., and was carrying Nelson and his band to a New Year’s Eve appearance in Dallas.

In his interview with NTSB investigators, Ferguson said the cabin heater warning light had come on throughout the flight and that he was ″nervous″ about using the heater, which was in the rear of the plane but controlled from the cockpit. He said Rank kept telling him to turn it back on, trying to get it to function.

″One of the times I refused to turn it on, I didn’t turn it on,″ Ferguson said. ″I was getting nervous. I didn’t think that we should be messing with that heater en route. I had discussed this with Brad on previous flights.″

The documents said a filter on the gasoline heater’s fuel line was fractured, but it was not clear from the documents whether the damage occurred before or after the crash.

Toxicology reports showed that Nelson, 45, and two members of the band had cocaine in their systems when they died. Published reports two weeks after the crash quoted NTSB investigator Rudy Kapustin as saying the agency was investigating the possibility the fire was drug-related.

A cocaine-related fire would presumably involve ″free-basing,″ or mixing cocaine with flammable ether or ammonia, then smoking the pure cocaine in a pipe.

At the time of the reports, Nelson’s personal manager, Greg McDonald of Palm Springs, Calif., called the suggestion ″nonsense″ and said Nelson did not ″free-base.″

The NTSB report made no further mention of drugs other than the toxicology reports.

After the cabin heater overheated several times, Ferguson said, Rank went to the rear of the plane to check on it, then signaled him to turn it on again. About four minutes later, Ferguson said, band member Patrick Woodward came to the cockpit and said there was smoke in the cabin.

The NTSB account of Rank’ interview makes no mention of any problems with the heater. According to NTSB, Rank said he was talking with Woodward mid- cabin when he noticed smoke in the area where Nelson and his fiancee, Helen Blair, 20, were sleeping in their seats, near the baggage compartment and the heater.

Rank said he went and checked the heater, finding it ″cool to his touch. He saw neither smoke nor fire,″ the NTSB said.

Rank said he nevertheless activated one of the fire extinguishers, then returned to the cabin, opening air vents along the way. The NTSB said the operating manual for the DC-3 says to close all ventilation ducts in the event of an in-flight fire.

Rank said when he returned to the cockpit, Ferguson was already talking to air traffic controllers trying to find the nearest airport.

Unable to limp to the closest airport 18 miles away, the twin-engine plane crashed into a field, crossed a two-lane highway and severed two utility poles, bounded across another field and slammed into trees, severing both wings.

″The cabin of the aircraft through the windows appeared to be an inferno. Flames and smoke was all that one could see,″ Ferguson told investigators.

The report said the pilots could give no information about the condition of the passengers during the crash landing, except that they were aware of one person standing in the cockpit doorway.

Rank said he pulled the person, who he thought to be Woodward, toward the cockpit window as he climbed through. He said after he reached the ground, he saw the person silhouetted in the window.

Woodward’s body was found with that of Nelson and Ms. Blair in the front of the cabin. Band members Andy Chapin, 30, and Rick Intveld, 23, were found slightly forward of mid-cabin, and Clark Russell, 35, and Bobby Neal, 38, were near the cockpit door.

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