‘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.


  1. DD

    He came to the Pa farm show in 1976 and walked past our high school group who had just won 1st place for our showcase design for FHA HERO group. (we were from near Pittsburgh) He asked if we’d like a photo with him and us in front of it. My teacher never gave us a copy I would love to have it . He was a real man for the people and so nice to meet.

  2. Brad

    He would have been President.

  3. Cathy

    My son (who was 6 or so at the time) and I were having dinner at a restaurant in Squirrel Hill when John Heinz stopped there for dinner during his campaign. He was at a table right next to ours and chatted with us about food, weather, etc. I remember telling him I was a Democrat, but I would vote for him. When he was killed, it was like a friend had died. John was a really kind and lovely man and so charismatic. And, as Brad said, I suspect he would have been president.

  4. Jack Koehler

    I knew John personally. He was a great down to earth person. Visited with him at his Fox Chapel home. Helped him with his campaign and picnics he hosted. When you were with him you would not know he was wealthy.

  5. Sunny

    JH can’t and never will be replaced. He had the kindest heart and truly cared about his constituents. He was gifted and a true gentleman.

    • Jack Koehler

      I agree, I knew John personally he was a great man.
      I think he was assassinated. That was no accident.

      • Simmon

        I agree, I met John several times as he loved aircraft. I fully believe he would have become President of the United States.

        Hmmm who did win in 1993 ?

  6. Ellen Heinz Fulmer

    John Heinz came to tour SEPTA and my late Father’s name is also John Heinz and was liked by everyone who worked with him. When the Senator came to SEPTA, everyone was yelling, “John Heinz, we want you to meet John Heinz!” They were on the lical news station together. My Dad was very impressed with the Senator, whom my Dad said was very warm and quite likeable. He also told my Father that he was certain they were related, because some of the Heinz family first settled in Philadelphia! Oh, how my Dad loved hearing that lol. Whether that is true or not, he left a lasting impression on John Heinz, my Dad, my hero, which means the world to me. But, even before that, I admired Senator Heinz and his principles and knew ge’d be President one day. Such a liss for the Heinz family, Pennsylvania, and our country. I remember watching the news unfold that day. A senseless accident, indeed.

  7. Homer Pyle

    Is there such thing as a sense full accident? Pilot error occurred by trying to determine if landing gear was oppreable. Doing the visual inspection over heavily populated suburban Philadelphia was a collusal blunder. Heintz plane may of crashed at the airport if the landingg gear failed.

  8. Dianne

    Yes future president.who was the presidents around that time.?

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