Prelim report on Wells plane crash: Witnesses saw 'a fireball descending through the clouds'

Tom Steeper (Source: Wagoner County Sheriff's Office)
Tom Steeper (Source: Wagoner County Sheriff's Office)
This graphic shows the flight path of the Cessna 421C that crashed near Wells Monday night. The plane took off from the West Houston Airport. (Source: Google Earth/
This graphic shows the flight path of the Cessna 421C that crashed near Wells Monday night. The plane took off from the West Houston Airport. (Source: Google Earth/

LUFKIN, TX (KTRE) - A preliminary report on the fatal plane crash that occurred near Wells on Nov. 26 has been issued by the National Transportation Safety Board.

Among other things, the report stated that witnesses told NTSB investigators that they heard a loud explosion and then saw "a fireball descending through the clouds to the ground" and that pieces of the wreckage were damaged in a way that was consistent with "an in-flight encounter with hail."

"On November 26, 2012, … a Cessna 421C airplane, N67SR, was substantially damaged during an in-flight encounter with weather, in-flight separation of airframe components, and subsequent impact damage with the ground near Wells, Texas," the report stated. "The private pilot, who was the sole occupant, was fatally injured. The airplane sustained impact and fire damage to all major airframe components."

The pilot was later identified as John Thomas Steeper, 64, of Broken Arrow, Okla. His friends and family knew him as Tom, according to an e-mail from a deputy with the Wagoner County Sheriff's Office in Oklahoma.

"Witnesses near the accident reported hearing a loud explosion and then seeing a fireball descending through the clouds," the NTSB report stated.

Texas Department of Public Safety officials said that Steeper left West Houston airport at 8:43 p.m. and was on his way to Richard Lloyd Jones Jr. Airport in Tulsa, Okla. in the twin engine Cessna 421C when he lost control over Wells in a severe thunderstorm at an altitude of 24,000 feet. DPS officials estimated his rate of descent at 15,000 feet a minute.

According to the report, the Cessna came to rest upside down in a wooded area near Wells.

"The fuselage and both wings suffered extensive fire damage," the report stated. "The lower fuselage was almost completely consumed by fire. The upper fuselage was recognizable but also had significant fire damage. The landing gear was observed in the retracted position."

A baggage door from the nose of the airplane was located a little more than a half mile southeast OF the main crash site. In addition, the horizontal stabilizer, or the small wing-looking structure near the ear of the plane, and elevators were located about a quarter mile south-southwest of the crash site, and it "showed no evidence of fire damage."

"The leading one-third of the upper surface of the left stabilizer had numerous dents with a fore-aft component that were consistent with an in-flight encounter with hail," the report stated.

After outlining how the pieces of wreckage came to rest, the report also stated that damage to the surviving pieces of wings, engines, and control cables showed "damage consistent with overload failure in a downward direction." The report also states that the plan's control cables were pretty much intact.

NTSB investigators thoroughly examined what was left of the Cessna's two engines. They took them apart and tried to rotate their crankshafts. The report stated, other than the severe impact and fire damage to both engines, there were no "pre-impact anomalies" that "would have prevented normal engine operation."

Keith Holloway, a public affairs officer, with the NTSB's Washington, D.C. office said no conclusions should be drawn from the report. The final report will outline what NTSB investigators believe caused the crash, based on the evidence at the crash scene, he said.

"The preliminary report just lists the facts associated with the crash," Holloway said.

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