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OFFICIAL JET CRASHES NEAR JACKSON

SHARE OFFICIAL JET CRASHES NEAR JACKSON

Recovery teams had to hike and ride on horseback Sunday to reach the wreckage of a military cargo plane carrying gear for President Clinton that slammed into the side of a mountain.

Nine people were aboard. There was no sign of survivors amid the still-smoldering wreckage, said Roberta D'Amico, a spokeswoman for the National Park Service.However, searchers had not given up hope, said Alan Merrell, a Teton County sheriff's deputy. "We just haven't found any yet," Merrell said at an afternoon news conference.

Clinton, who had been vacationing in the Jackson area, had left before the crash and returned to Washington early Sunday.

The four-engine C-130 crashed and exploded in flames in rugged terrain Saturday night shortly after taking off from the Jackson Hole Airport.

One Secret Service employee and eight crew members were believed to have been aboard the plane, which was headed to New York City for Clinton's birthday celebration, White House spokeswoman April Mellody said Sunday.

Clinton said he and the first lady were "very sad and shocked" by the crash. "This is especially painful to us because (the victims) worked for me and did an invaluable service and I am very sad about it," he said.

A Clinton administration official said the pilot reported mechanical trouble and had started to return to the airport. But others cautioned against speculating on why the plane went down.

"Whether they flew into the mountain or lost control for some aircraft reason, we don't know," said Jeff Brown, president of Jackson Hole Aviation, the airport's fixed base operator. "It could have been an inflight shift of cargo or who knows, engine failure, the whole gambit."

The only pieces of the plane left intact were a piece of the tail section and several wheels, said Keith Benefiel of the Teton County Search and Rescue Team.

Officials said the Air Force would handle the investigation. The plane was equipped with voice and cockpit data recorders.

The turboprop-powered aircraft was used to shuttle presidential vehicles. It apparently was carrying a vehicle used by White House security, not a presidential limousine, officials said.

The plane crashed about 15 miles southeast of the Jackson Hole Airport, along the northwestern edge of Wyoming about 30 miles south of Yellowstone National Park.

The small public airport has no control tower and no radio contact with airplanes coming in and out.

The plane slammed into Sheep Mountain, known locally as Sleeping Indian Mountain, in the Gros Ventre (pronounced Groh Vent) Wilderness of the Bridger-Teton National Forest. The crash site was less than 1,000 feet below the mountain's 11,300-foot peak.

"It was way too low," said Anne Skov, who watched the plane from her front window. "After I saw it, someone called and asked if we were all right and that there was a plane crash. I said, `Oh, my God - I saw the plane."'

There are no roads or trails to the scene and it took recovery crews more than three hours to reach the site Sunday morning. Because of the mountainous terrain, helicopters could not fly in during the night.

The airplane was loaded with about 35,000 pounds of fuel, and the fireball when it crashed could be seen as far away as Teton Village at the base of the Jackson Hole Ski Area, about 20 miles to the west.

"To me it looked like a fire brewing on Sleeping Indian," said Tim Tomkinson, night manager of Buckboard Cab Co.

Officials said the chances of a forest fire were slim because the plane crashed in a rocky area above the timberline. Still, fire crews were called in and several campers left the area as a precaution.

The Jackson Hole Airport is located within the Grand Teton National Park, the nation's only airport inside a national park.

The last crash at the airport was in January 1995, when three people died in the crash of a single-engine airplane on approach to the airport.