Former Missouri official killed when plane crashed into house

Monday, February 22, 2010 | 3:23 p.m. CST

ST. LOUIS— A small plane that slammed into a southwestern Illinois house and hangar in a subdivision built for aviation enthusiasts never sent out a distress signal before crashing. The crash killed the two flyers, including a banker who once helped guide Missouri's economic development, officials said.

No one on the ground was injured when the single-engine Piper Malibu apparently occupied by Donald Estell and Robert Clarkson went down in the rain Sunday evening while approaching St. Louis Downtown Airport in Cahokia, Ill., just east of the city, said St. Clair County Sheriff's Capt. Steve Johnson.

County Coroner Rick Stone said the victims tentatively have been identified as Estell, a 65-year-old Clayton man who once headed the former Missouri Division of Commerce and Industrial Development, and Clarkson, 68, of Belleville, Ill.

Stone said the intensity of the fiery crash hampered efforts to confirm the victims' identities. Genetic testing, which could take months, may be necessary to make the identifications official. "Right now, we're using common sense" and identifying through circumstantial evidence, such as the fact that Estell and Clarkson have not been heard from since the crash, Stone said.

Johnson said authorities believe two people were on the plane, based on the pilot's flight plan, which listed a passenger. Relatives of Clarkson have told investigators that he was supposed to have been aboard the plane, Johnson said.

Stone said Estell was flying the plane. He was a licensed pilot who often volunteered his services for and served as a board member of Angel Flight Central, a nonprofit agency that arranges charitable flights for humanitarian causes.

The cause of the crash remained unclear. The Federal Aviation Administration said Monday it was assisting the investigation but directed questions to the National Transportation Safety Board, the lead agency handling the probe. A Chicago-based National Transportation Safety Board investigator was headed to the crash site and was expected to brief reporters late Monday, a spokesman for the agency's Washington headquarters said.

Estell had been board chairman of Stern Brothers & Co., a Clayton-based regional investment banking firm, before becoming Commerce Bank's director of public finance last summer.

A man who answered Estell's home telephone Monday declined to comment. Stern Brothers said in a statement it was "deeply saddened" by the death of the former chairman, remembered as "a mentor and true gentleman. He touched many and will be missed by all."

Bob McDaniel, the Cahokia airport's director, said the plane, which can seat up to six passengers, was based at the airport and was flying from Vero Beach, Fla.

McDaniel said FAA records show that the plane left Vero Beach at 3:19 p.m. CST Sunday — about an hour behind schedule — and was approaching the Cahokia airport in light rain about three hours later when the crash occurred.

"The weather was well within (the pilot's) capabilities," McDaniel said. "It's just somewhat of a mystery."

Johnson said it was a miracle that no one on the ground was injured, noting that the home's occupants were dining out at the time. Neighbors broke out windows to rescue two dogs that were inside the burning house, Johnson said.

Houses in the subdivision have hangars and private runways.

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