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Wednesday October 18, 2000

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Missouri Gov. killed in plane crash

By The Associated Press

GOLDMAN, Mo. - Gov. Mel Carnahan, the Democratic candidate in one of the most hotly contested U.S. Senate races in the country, was killed when the plane shuttling him to a campaign rally crashed in rainy, foggy weather.

The Cessna 335 also carrying Carnahan's 44-year-old son, Roger, who was piloting the plane, and campaign adviser Chris Sifford, 37, went down Monday night 25 miles south of St. Louis. They had been en route to a rally for Carnahan, 66, who was running against Republican Sen. John Ashcroft.

There were no survivors, said Jerry Nachtigal, the governor's spokesman. Investigators from the National Transportation Safety Board were sent to the scene. "We found wreckage in very small pieces spread over a large area. We have found some remains we cannot identify at this point" Jefferson County Sheriff's Capt. Ed Kemp said.

Ashcroft's campaign immediately suspended all advertising and other operations. "Obviously this is not a time for politics. This is a time for the state to come together," Ashcroft said.

The race, seen as one of the key races in the Democrats' effort to retake control of the Senate, had been a dead heat for months. A Zogby poll taken for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch the first week of September gave Ashcroft 45 percent and Carnahan 43 percent, within the 4-point margin of error.

Carnahan's name will stay on the Nov. 7 ballot because the deadline for changing it was Oct. 13, Secretary of State Bekki Cook said.

Lt. Gov. Roger Wilson will serve out the remainder of Carnahan's term, until Jan. 8.

If more voters cast ballots for Carnahan than Ashcroft on Nov. 7, the seat would become vacant when Ashcroft's current term ends Jan. 3, Cook said. Wilson, a Democrat, would have constitutional authority to appoint a senator to fill the vacancy through the November 2002 general election, when the seat would be up for election, Cook said.

The deaths prompted discussion of whether last night's debate in St. Louis between Vice President Al Gore and Texas Gov. George W. Bush should be postponed. Yesterday morning, though, the debate's sponsors said the presidential debate would go forward. It would begin with a moment of silence and brief remarks about Carnahan.

In a statement, Bush praised Carnahan as "a thoughtful, distinguished man who was dedicated to quality education and excellence in public service." Gore said he was "deeply saddened" and hailed Carnahan's work on education and other issues.

The NTSB said the twin-engine plane, a six-seater, was registered to a law firm where Roger Carnahan was a partner.

The governor had been expected at the rally at 8 p.m. in New Madrid, about 125 miles south of the crash site, described as a hilly, wooded area.

State Sen. Jerry Howard, who was at the rally, said Roy Temple, executive director of the Missouri Democratic Party, got a page around 8 p.m. from Sifford. Sifford told Temple the governor's plane had encountered lightning and was going to return to St. Louis or Jefferson City, Howard said.

Tom Hunter, who lives near the crash site, said he heard the plane flying overhead.

"I thought, 'What a crazy person in this kind of weather.' Next thing, sounded like it was in a very steep dive, the engine was just screaming," Hunter told St. Louis TV station KMOV.

He said he heard a loud explosion and the sky turned red. "That was it," Hunter said. "It was total silence. I told my wife to call 911."

In Jefferson City at dawn yesterday, Susie Shultz, a state employee, brought red mums to the governor's mansion.

"I thought he was wonderful," she said. "He did so much for our state. Mel Carnahan was the education man. He was for the right things."

Carnahan, son of a seven-term congressman, won his first public election at age 26 as a municipal judge in his hometown of Rolla. He was elected to the Missouri House of Representatives two years later and served two terms before becoming state treasurer.

In 1988, Carnahan was elected lieutenant governor. 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 as governor.

"Governor Carnahan always believed public service was a noble calling," Nachtigal said. "We will miss him dearly."

President Clinton called Carnahan's wife, Jean, to express condolences while he was at the Mideast summit in Egypt. The couple had four children.

"He's known him for a long time. They've worked together on a lot of issues," Clinton spokesman Jake Siewert said.

In 1976, another Senate challenger in Missouri, U.S. Rep. Jerry Litton, died in a plane crash as he and his family were flying to a victory celebration the night he won the Democratic nomination.

The last governor to die in office was Florida Gov. Lawton Chiles on Dec. 12, 1998. The 68-year-old collapsed while exercising in the governor's mansion gymnasium. South Dakota Gov. George Mickelson died in 1993 when the state's airplane slammed into a silo in eastern Iowa.