‘Senseless accident that didn’t have to happen’ takes away lives of kids, kills Sen. Heinz

Twenty-five years ago, burning wreckage from a mid-air collision fell on children playing on the grounds of Merion Elementary school in Montgomery County.

“One went everywhere, and a piece fell in the boys’ basketball game, and one blew up in the sky,” said a 7-year-old named Joanna Rosengard. “I thought it was a missile, like on TV, and I thought it was coming here.”

Two children were killed and five people on the ground injured by the remnants of the April 4, 1991, crash between a Lycoming Piper Aerostar carrying Sen. John Heinz and a helicopter whose pilots were trying to check the landing gear on the plane. The senator and two pilots on his plane as well as both Sun Co. helicopter pilots were killed.

The death of Sen. Heinz, a Pennsylvania Republican, was stunning enough, and the deaths and injuries on the school yard below intensified the shock.

Photos of terrified children, investigators inspecting wreckage and peering under shrouds, and grief-stricken parents from the Lower Merion Township scene flooded news reports. Five days later, more wrenching images of the senator’s funeral at Heinz Chapel appeared, showing a stricken Teresa Heinz being supported by her sons as she walked along the path toward the chapel.

The collision came after the senator’s plane reported a problem with its landing gear and the helicopter offered to fly nearby to see whether the gear was down for a landing.

Months later an investigation by the National Transportation Safety Board cited “appallingly poor judgment” by pilots as the cause the airplane-helicopter collision. The board’s investigators recited a long litany of the mistakes and wrong decisions that led to the deaths and injuries. Most painful was the observation by Tom Haueter, chief NTSB investigator, that visual checks of the plane from the helicopter were pointless because it is impossible to see into the wheel well of an Aerostar to check whether the nose gear is locked.

“This was a senseless accident that didn’t have to happen,” said James L. Kolstad, chairman of the five-member National Transportation Safety Board at the time.

Sen. Heinz, a member of the family that founded the H.J. Heinz Company, was tall, handsome, athletic and wealthy. He was a well-liked politician, a member of the even-then dwindling tribe of moderate Republicans.

He spent 20 years on Capitol Hill, first as a congressman and then as a senator, and built a reputation as a defender of the elderly and a champion of the declining steel industry.

Born Henry John Heinz 3d in Pittsburgh, he was the only child of Henry John Heinz 2d and Joan Diehl Heinz. His parents divorced and he split his childhood between his mother’s home in San Francisco and his father’s Fox Chapel home.

He attended Phillips Exeter Academy in New Hampshire and earned a B.A. at Yale and an M.B.A. at Harvard. After that he served in the Air Force as an enlisted man. Before entering politics, he took a marketing job in the Heinz office in Pittsburgh. He married Maria Teresa Thierstein Simões-Ferreira, and they had three children. After his death, she married John Kerry, now U.S. secretary of state.

Teresa Heinz Kerry said of John Heinz: “He had a rare gift for seeing the world in bright shades, and an even more uncommon gift for finding ways to share that vision with those for whom life had become cast in shades of hopeless gray.”

Lillian is an editor who works on investigative and enterprise projects and likes to find the stories behind photos from the PG files.