Carnahan remembered as a uniter

Monday, October 15, 2001

ST. LOUIS -- It is a spot so remote, so removed from beaten paths that it took hours for rescue workers to reach it -- hours spent waiting and hoping that it was just a coincidence.

There had been a plane crash 25 miles south of St. Louis. And the plane carrying the governor was missing.

So what started as a quiet Monday night in October quickly descended into chaos. It would not recover until the young hours of a new day, when the news everyone suspected was confirmed.

Mel Carnahan was dead.

Roy Temple, the state Democratic Party's former head, had been waiting that night, Oct. 16, 2000, in New Madrid for the plane carrying Carnahan, his son and pilot Roger, better known as Randy, and a campaign aide, Chris Sifford, his former chief of staff. He received a voice mail message that night from an airborne Sifford, letting him know that stormy weather was forcing a change in plans and a decision to take the governor home to Jefferson City.

One year later, what he remembers most is Carnahan's ability to bring people together.

"The governor was about trying to find a different way, of getting people together to work on problems that needed to be addressed. Whatever the group, he tried to reach out and listen to what people had to offer."

'We have to go'

His last day started in St. Louis, just a day after a debate with Sen. John Ashcroft, the Springfield Republican and former governor he was trying to unseat from the U.S. Senate.

Carnahan had done well, and internal polling numbers that for months reflected an electorate torn between the two men showed Carnahan slowly starting the pull ahead. The election was three weeks away.

Stop one was a Gore campaign rally, where Carnahan spoke with Missy Shelton Belote of Springfield's National Public Radio affiliate, KSMU. "The story was kind of a feature piece: What was life like on the road? Was it difficult being away from Jean? What was the daily grind of being on the campaign trail?" Shelton Belote said.

A few more interviews, then an evening at the home of Howard Meyer, a St. Louis restaurant and nightclub owner.

Carnahan arrived and talked for about 15 minutes in Meyer's dining room, then mingled with guests. He was still listening when the time came to leave for St. Louis Downtown Airport, where he would fly to New Madrid for a meeting with black clergy and community leaders from the Bootheel.

"He was standing in the foyer of my home with the door open and it was just pouring. He was trying to leave, and just kept talking and just kept talking," Meyer said.

"Finally, they said, 'Governor, we have to go.'"

'Committed to the fight'

That insistence came from Sifford, a Puxico native who was a newspaper editor when childhood pal Temple called looking for a press secretary for Carnahan's first gubernatorial campaign. Eventually promoted to chief of staff, it was Sifford's job to reassure Carnahan the decisions he made were the right ones.

"There was a 30-year age difference between them, but they were just in sync in their thinking, in their politics and their policy," said Jerry Nachtigal, the governor's press secretary. "I think Mel just really grew to rely on Chris' judgment."

At one point that night Sifford said the trip to New Madrid was probably off because of the weather.

"Actually, a few of us did suggest that he not go, that the weather was bad," Meyer said. "But he was just so committed to the fight to win, to represent, to put the people of Missouri before himself."

Always knew where he wasCarnahan developed a love for flight during summers refueling planes at National Airport in Washington, D.C., where he grew up, and he finally found time to earn a pilot's license after he became governor.

And he loved flying around Missouri. "Within a second, he could open his eyes, look out the window and in just a split second, tell you exactly where we were," said Tony Wyche, Carnahan's campaign spokesman.

But like most flights on campaign time, Carnahan wasn't piloting the twin-engine Cessna 335 when it left St. Louis. That job belonged to Randy, the eldest son.

Increased scanner traffic

At home and already in bed for the evening, Nachtigal was focused on Monday Night Football when the phone rang. The caller was from a St. Louis television station, and she had an odd question: Jerry, where is the governor?

"I could hear the police scanner in the background," Nachtigal said. "I could tell from the scanner traffic, from the state of excitement in that newsroom, that something was up."

Nachtigal talked to members of the governor's staff and security officials at the Capitol, and didn't find an answer. But word was beginning to spread in Jefferson City, spurred by calls from reporters first to make the connection.

"So I drove three miles to the Capitol," Nachtigal said. "That's how it all started."

Shortly after the 10 p.m. news ended in St. Louis, anchors broke into their late-night talk shows to let viewers know the little they themselves knew:

There had been a plane crash 25 miles south of St. Louis.

And the plane carrying the governor was missing.

In the year since the Carnahan party died, there have been no official answers as to why the Cessna 335 went down that night. The official report from the National Transportation Safety Board, with a statement of probable cause, is not expected until next year.

Doing what's needed

"The thing that I found most useful was the idea of getting up each morning and doing whatever needed to be done that day. Do something that appeared to be a duty. And to get up and do that thing. And even though you didn't know what the next thing was going to be, that would become more apparent if you just did the thing at hand."

So that's what Mrs. Carnahan did.

First, she buried her husband. Thousands rallied at the Capitol, sitting behind the first lady of Missouri as she and her family led a state and nation in honoring her husband and their governor -- a rural lawyer and public servant from Birch Tree.

It didn't take long for his most ardent supporters to make clear they would not give up the fight against Ashcroft.

And now she looks back at her last morning with her husband.

"We didn't say anything unique to each other that day. I told him I had been to the school and I was excited about telling him about it. He always enjoyed hearing about schools and the things they were doing," she said a few days before the first anniversary of the crash.

"And so I was anxious to tell him about what I had seen and he said, 'Oh, you can tell me when I get home.'"

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