MINA, S.D. – The old sheriff grabbed his hat and a set of keys. “I haven’t been out there in a while,” he said. “Let’s go. I can take you there.”

Laurie Gerdes, the Edmunds County sheriff since 1987, started his patrol car and pulled onto state Highway 45.

“Oh, they still talk about Payne Stewart around here,” he said. “You got to understand, we’re rural. If you’re not talking about the weather, there’s not a whole lot else.”

Looking back, much of Gerdes’ law-enforcement career has been spent chasing teenagers who have stumbled upon a six-pack or a little pot. But there are those three vivid memories that stand out in his mind. “I guess it was back in 1989 or ‘90, we had a house fire and it killed a woman and her three kids. That was in Hosmer. I can still see it,” said the 54-year-old sheriff. “And in 1992 – in Hosmer again-we had a guy who shot his wife and four kids, and then he killed himself. I’ll never forget seeing that little girl sitting there.

“But the plane crash, that was a little bit different. When I think about that, I can still see a set of golf clubs spread out. There were little parts of shaft over there, the head of a club over there. You don’t forget seeing something like that.”

It got quiet in the patrol car as Gerdes continued the 25-minute drive down Highway 45. It’s the same route he traveled five years ago when he raced to the crash site, only to find a giant hole and remnants of a plane and six lives strewn across a field.

The airplane that carried Stewart and five others crashed in a grazing pasture in Mina, an easy-to-miss village in northeast South Dakota. Fewer than 1,000 people live here, and since the post office closed about six years ago, the only business in town is a small tavern called Montana’s Bar.

The area surrounding Mina (pronounced MY-nuh) is mostly bare unremarkable landscape. The state highways are sponsored by 4-H clubs, church groups, Elks lodges and scout troops. There are few people, fewer houses; mostly just land. From high above, the area looks like a patchwork quilt, each plot a different shade of yellow, brown or green.

The people who live here either tend farmland or work in nearby Aberdeen. They all know exactly where they were when the small Learjet crashed five years ago today. The small community became a fixture on national news programs for a week following the crash, and the town continued to buzz about the accident for several months.

In many ways, that unforgettable day can easily be reconstructed through the people in Mina.

Darrell Hillestad lives in Mina but flies small airplanes out of the airport in Aberdeen. He was in the air five years ago, flying over Mina but below the jet carrying Stewart. Cruising at about 8,000 feet, Hillestad’s radio began crackling with controllers telling him to get out of the area.

John Hoffman was chasing pheasants with a group of about 18 hunters from Texas. They were in the middle of nowhere and had no idea people around the country were glued to the television as a plane spiraled down toward South Dakota.

One of the hunters stopped dead in his tracks. About a mile away, Tim Kessler swore he saw an airplane crash into the earth. The group ran toward higher ground on some railroad tracks but could see nothing. A cell phone call confirmed that it was a plane crash.

“By the time we knew what was going on, there were hundreds of cars, police and ambulance all over,” Hoffman said. “There wasn’t much we could do. We sat around for a bit, and then someone came running toward us. It was a neighbor and he was saying, “John, that plane crashed right in the middle of your land. You’d better get over there.’ “

The squad car turned off Highway 45 onto a nondescript gravel road and Gerdes drove for a couple of miles, leaving billows of dust in his wake.

“See that stack of hay,” he said, pointing to his left. “That’s where we turn.”

Gerdes explained that after the crash five years ago, hundreds of curious South Dakota residents drove to this area, their cars lined up for several miles. Seventeen giant television satellite trucks parked along a field; a fire crew was stationed not far away in case a generator sparked a fire.

They still talk about it today. The woman who operates a hair salon out of her living room can share with you a dozen rumors about the cause of the crash – few of them true. The man who tends bar at a local tavern reaches beneath the drawer in his cash register and pulls out a small piece of mangled metal, a piece of the plane that was discovered long after the investigation into the crash had concluded.

The sheriff turned at the hay and continued on the grass field, driving about 300 yards to where the Learjet crashed. When the plane came down, the closest sign of life were some cows, probably within 100 yards of the wreckage. The crash left a 10-foot deep crater, 30-by-40 feet wide.

“It was just a hole in the ground,” said Gerdes. “If you were driving down the road and looked off to the side, you’d never see it.”

Today the cows are a couple of hundred yards away and this field is mostly used for cutting hay – all except a fenced off area, about 20 yards long and 20 yards wide. Inside the fence, the hole was long ago filled in. Now wild grass, weeds and a couple of wild sunflowers sprout more than three feet off the ground.

“I knew I had to put a fence up,” said Hoffman, the land owner. “I didn’t want cattle walking over it. I consider it a partial gravesite.”

A couple of family members visited the site in the year following the crash, but for the most part nobody comes around here anymore. In one corner of the fenced-off area, though, is a small marker.

It’s a rock – one that was unearthed while investigators sifted the crash site for pieces of airplane – and one side has been flattened. Hoffman had it inscribed.

There are the names: Van Ardan, Bruce Borland, Robert Fraley and Payne Stewart. In slightly smaller letters are the names of two pilots, Michael Kling and Stephanie Bellegarrigue. Below is the date, October 25, 1999, and above is a Bible verse, Psalms 40:2-3, specifically chosen by the families of the victims.

“He brought me up also out of a horrible pit, out of the miry clay, and set my feet upon a rock, and established my goings. And he hath put a new song in my mouth, even praise unto our God: many shall see it, and fear, and shall trust in the Lord.”

(c) 2004, The Orlando Sentinel (Fla.).

Visit the Sentinel on the World Wide Web at http://www.orlandosentinel.com/. On America Online, use keyword: OSO.

Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.


ARCHIVE PHOTOS on KRT Direct (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): jetcrash, payne stewart

ARCHIVE GRAPHICS on KRT Direct (from KRT Graphics, 202-383-6064): Jetcrash, payne stewart

AP-NY-10-24-04 2052EDT

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