By Molly Hennessy-Fiske and Tina Susman, Los Angeles Times
BEDFORD, Mass. — Media owner Lewis Katz and six othe people died when a private jet veered into a marshy area and burst into flames during takeoff, investigators said Sunday as they began investigating the crash.
The pilot had reported no trouble, but the plane apparently never got off the ground, a National Transportation Safety Board inspector said.
Katz’s death Saturday night heaped new turmoil on the Philadelphia Inquirer, which last week changed hands for the fifth time since 2006 after Katz and partner H.F. “Gerry” Lenfest emerged from a private auction as sole owners of the Inquirer, the Philadelphia Daily News, and Philly.com. The pair paid $88 million for the properties, ending at least for now a feud with rivals over the news organizations’ coverage.
Although Katz’s death was not expected to interrupt the sale, it was the latest in a string of upheavals for a news group whose flagship — the Inquirer — is one of the oldest and most-decorated newspapers in the country.
“We’ve lost a great friend,” Inquirer editor Bill Marimow said.
The ill-fated Gulfstream IV carried two pilots, a flight attendant and four passengers, including Katz.
A huge explosion shook residents living near Hanscom Field, about 20 miles northwest of Boston, about 9:40 p.m.
Michelle and Kevin Thompson, whose home is near the edge of the airfield, heard the crash.
Although the crash site was about 200 yards from their home, Michelle Thompson said the explosion was so loud that she thought something had happened in their yard. “It sounded that close,” she said. “All you could see was this big black cloud.”
At a news briefing, NTSB senior inspector Luke Schiada said an employee at Hanscom who watched the jet try to take off never saw it become airborne.
“He did not see the aircraft break ground,” Schiada said, meaning the wheels never left the pavement.
Schiada described a terrifying chain of events as the jet left the paved section of the runway, rolled onto grass, hit an antenna and a fence, and crashed into a watery gully. Debris was strewn about 2,000 feet, he said.
The pilots had “no abnormal communications” with the airport tower beforehand, Schiada said. “No verbal alert.”
Investigators hoped to recover the plane’s cockpit voice recorder and black box. All of the victims were found inside the jet.
Word quickly spread that they included Katz, who used to be principal owner of the NBA’s New Jersey Nets — now the Brooklyn Nets — and the NHL’s New Jersey Devils. He also was a shareholder of the Nets, the New York Yankees, and the YES Network.
In 2012, Katz, Lenfest and three others bought the Inquirer, Daily News and Philly.com. They split into two factions, with Katz and Lenfest feuding with the three co-owners headed by George Norcross III, an insurance executive and New Jersey Democratic Party fundraiser.
Last fall, Katz accused Norcross of trying to take control of the newsroom by ordering the firing of Marimow, sparking a court battle that brought the feud into the open.
A judge ruled that Marimow could keep his job and ordered the sale of the news properties, which led to last week’s auction.
“We both know that this public conflagration wasn’t good for anybody,” Katz said after he and Lenfest emerged as the co-owners.
Katz and Lenfest were expected to focus more resources on bolstering the Inquirer’s in-depth and investigative reporting.
“Hopefully, it’ll get fatter,” Katz said of the newspaper, which like others has struggled to maintain subscribers and circulation in the face of online competition and declining ad revenue.
Officials did not identify the other passengers, but several media outlets reported that they included Anne Leeks, a retired schoolteacher from Longport, N.J., who had attended an education-related function with Katz in Boston over the weekend.
Philly.com reported that another passenger was Marcella Dalsey, executive director of the Drew A. Katz Foundation, which is named after Lewis Katz’s son, and the co-president of a charter school that she and Drew Katz founded in Camden, N.J.
Also aboard was Susan K. Asbell, of Camden, N.J., one of the leaders of the Boys & Girls Club of Camden County, Philly.com reported.
Hanscom Field remained closed late Sunday.
People living near the small airport, which is surrounded by residential neighborhoods, said they always feared a crash, but they assumed it would involve one of the helicopters using the military side of the airport.
Still, Kevin Thompson said the airport had small planes coming and going throughout the day and night.
“It can be like rush hour out there,” he said.
David Maialetti/Philadelphia Daily News/MCT