A U.S. military plane carrying Commerce Secretary Ronald H. Brown and 32 other people crashed into a hillside Wednesday while trying to land in extremely bad weather near the Croatian port city of Dubrovnik. No survivors were found, and the State Department said Brown is presumed dead.
Croatian rescue teams working in darkness and blinding rain past midnight found the bodies of 10 people at the crash site, all of them Americans, before suspending their search until sunrise. Meanwhile, a team of 11 U.S. special forces troops was reported to be making its way overnight through rugged terrain toward the wreckage.
The Air Force T-43A aircraft, whose passengers also included other Commerce Department officials and a group of American business leaders looking into postwar reconstruction projects in the former Yugoslavia, smashed into a rocky 2,300-foot hilltop about 1.8 miles from the Dubrovnik airport.
The plane disappeared from airport radar screens at 2:52 p.m. (4:52 a.m. PST). Air Force Lt. Gen. Howell Estes, operations director for the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told reporters at the Pentagon that there was no evidence of an explosion aboard the plane or of hostile fire around the airport. The area had been engulfed by fighting between Serb and Croat forces in recent years but has been quiet since last summer.
Besides Brown, those aboard the plane included 12 U.S. government officials, 13 business executives, New York Times reporter Nathaniel Nash and six crew members. Among the executives was Washingtonresident Paul Cushman III, head of international and embassy banking operations for Riggs National Bank.
The Pentagon said the aircraft, a military version of the Boeing 737 commercial jet, was more than a mile off course as it approached the airport, situated on the Adriatic coast about 12 miles southeast of Dubrovnik. Estes said the federal government has begun an investigation into the cause of the crash, but it appeared likely that low visibility and gusty winds may have been factors.
The airport, which has mountains looming near the runway and does not have the precision approach equipment common in the United States, is considered an extremely difficult place to land in poor weather. Although five planes landed there in the hours before the crash, Croatian Airlines diverted some of its commercial flights away from Dubrovnik because of harsh weather.
Reports of Brown’s death immediately plunged much of official and political Washington into shock. He had a number of close friends at the White House in addition to President Clinton and the first lady, and was known by virtually every major figure in the Clinton administration.
In brief remarks to Commerce Department employees Wednesday, Clinton praised Brown as “one of the best advisers and ablest people I ever knew; he was very, very good at everything he ever did.” The loss of Brown, who was instrumental to Clinton’s 1992 election campaign, deprives the president of one of his most important links to the black business and political community.
Although Brown was a key administration strategist in this year’s presidential campaign, attending highlevel political planning meetings on a weekly basis, his visibility in Washington has declined sharply in the past year as investigators examined his alleged involvement in a web of suspicious financial dealings.
In February 1994, the Justice Department cleared Brown of charges he had accepted a $700,000 bribe from a Vietnamese businessman in exchange for helping lift the trade embargo against Vietnam.
Last May, however, an independent counsel was appointed last year to look into how Brown made nearly a half-million dollars by selling his interest in a company he formed with Texas businesswoman Nolanda Hill, even though Brown never invested any money in the company.
Independent counsel Daniel S. Pearson was also investigating whether Brown filed inaccurate reports on his financial holdings, whether he provided inaccurate information on a mortgage application and whether an Oklahoma natural gas company hired Brown’s son, Michael, in hopes of gaining influence with the Commerce Department.
White House aides said last year that, given the charges Brown faced, the best outcome he could hope for was to avoid indictment and forcible resignation.
Brown declared at the time that “there has been no improper activity or impropriety” on his part, and he insisted that an investigation would clear his name.
In a Tuesday night interview in Paris on his way to the Balkans, Brown sought to explain to Washington Post correspondent William Drozdiak why he was leading an American business delegation to a region where war and ethnic hatred have destroyed much of the infrastructure and crippled the economy.
Brown said that trade, not aid, was the key to reconstruction of Yugoslavia and that U.S. foreign policy objectives could be achieved while making sure that “American companies get their share” of the $5 billion worth of construction projects he expected in the region in the next five years.
“Our business presence can carry an impact well beyond the military peacekeeping role now being played by American and NATO troops; that’s why we’re going there,” said Brown, whose tenure as commerce secretary was regarded by many in the business community as exceptionally effective in promoting American interests in new overseas markets.
Before the crash, Brown and his delegation spent what appeared to be a pleasant visit with U.S. peacekeeping troops near the Bosnian city of Tuzla.
The Air Force jet transporting them had often been assigned to ferry visiting dignitaries around Europe. First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton flew in it last week while in Turkey, and Defense Secretary William J. Perry used it earlier this week for trips to Bosnia, Croatia and Albania.
The aircraft, based in Ramstein, Germany, had an unblemished safety record, according to the Air Force.