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Secretary Ron Brown’s Plane Crashes in Croatia

On April 3rd, 1996, just before the Easter holiday, Secretary of Commerce Ron Brown was killed in a plane crash in Croatia. He was 54 years old. He was on a trip to Dubrovnik, flying from Zagreb to meet with President Franjo Tuđman on an official trade mission. Brown had offered to make the trip on behalf of President Bill Clinton as the President’s schedule was very tight and Brown was available. The crash occurred as the pilot attempted to land at Dubrovnik’s Cilipi Airport on visual flight rules in severe weather. The plane crashed into a mountainside; Ron Brown and 34 other people were killed instantly. Only Air Force Technical Sergeant Shelly Kelly was able to survive the impact; however, she died on her way to the hospital. In March 2011, the new United States Mission to the United Nations building in New York City was named in Brown’s honor (see photo below). 

Peter W. Galbraith, who was appointed the first Ambassador to Croatia in 1993 by President Clinton, describes the events that led to the crash, how Galbraith ended up not going on that fateful flight, and the landing that never should have been attempted. He was interviewed by Charles Stuart Kennedy beginning in March 1999. You can read about how other people died in the line of duty, whose names are on the AFSA Memorial Plaques marking the main entrance to the State Department.


 A Simple Trade Mission

GALBRAITH:  We had all these visits [to Croatia]. I must say when I had done my ambassadorial seminar, there was a discussion of what happens if you have the President come visit and how that can turn an embassy upside down. It was a briefing that I completely turned out since it seemed so improbable that the President of the United States would ever come to Croatia in the middle of the war and under [dictator] Franjo Tuđman and indeed for the first year of my tenure the highest level visitor we had was an office director [from the State Department]….

Again with the peace implementation, President Clinton was going to make a very fast trip in January to Bosnia, Hungary and stop off in Croatia and see President Tuđman. I had wanted him to stay a little bit longer because I thought that he would get a very warm reception from the Croatian people. At that point in time there was no country in the world that was as pro-American as Croatia with the sense that the United States had stood by Croatia and had helped bring about what was from the Croatian point of view a successful outcome to the war.

Needless to say, feelings in Bosnia were more mixed with the Serbs not as happy. I think politics was also a little bit in my mind with the notion that it certainly wouldn’t hurt President Clinton’s standing with the Croatian-Americans who are located in some key states for him to be well received. The other side of that coin which I understood very well was first that the President had a very tight schedule, there were security concerns and he didn’t want to be seen in too close an embrace of an odious leader like Franjo Tuđman.

In any event, the visit was an airport stop and in some ways the elements of the visit were very interesting. The White House advance chief was a guy named Redmond Walsh, who is one of the more laid-back individuals I ever encountered and he behaved nothing like a White House advance man. He was very polite, never placed demands on anything. The Croatians offered to close the airport when Clinton arrived and he said, “Oh well, it’s not necessary, we’ll just have a little part of the airport.”

So, finally, I turned to him and took him aside and said, “Redman, you’re really doing great damage to the reputation of the United States. Everybody expects that when the President comes, we make the world stop, that we boss everybody around. You’ve got to be a little more demanding.” I was joking, but not entirely joking.

Anyhow, what also happened was that the weather cut short the president’s visit to Bosnia, so he came earlier than anticipated, but it was a successful meeting in the evening in Zagreb. The Croatians had taken the VIP rooms at the airport, which were done in what I call Yugo-communist style, which was sort of a 1970s dark wood and lots of brown colors and a ghastly chandelier. They had transformed it into a room, several rooms out of the Hapsburg Empire with furniture from the museums and paintings on the walls from the museums in Zagreb. Clinton had a…fairly straightforward exchange with Tuđman. He was very tired. They had a one- on-one [meeting] and then he left.

We had [Secretary of State Warren] Christopher come, I think that was January, Christopher [came] in February again — the message to reinforce the Dayton Peace Agreement. Then with the idea of producing tangible results, we wanted to convey the impression that peace was going to bring economic benefits. The decision was made that the Secretary of Commerce Ron Brown should come with a delegation from the various U.S. agencies that handled economic matters along with businessmen.

Interestingly, his advance team was the most demanding of all. It was the antithesis of President Clinton’s. There was a young man at the head of it named Morris Reed who I’m afraid we’ll probably hear from again in politics, although I hope not. He came into my office and we chatted about what Ron Brown might do. There was a scheduling problem:…the visit was coming up just before Good Friday and the Easter holiday. Ron Brown had promised that he’d be back with his family for Easter Sunday and I think Ambassador [to Austria] Swanee Hunt wanted to do something for him and he promised to do something in Vienna on the Friday or Saturday …So the question was how to fill in the time.

So I suggested on that Good Friday that he go to Dubrovnik. Now, Morris Reed had never heard of Dubrovnik. I showed him, I had on my coffee table in my office a picture book, a wonderful Croatian picture book of Dubrovnik and I showed him the picture book. He looked at it and then he was concerned that it might look like a junket and he wanted to protect his boss.

I said, no, first that this was at the edge of what had been a war zone, but that really there would be a great economic boost to Dubrovnik and if the U.S. Secretary of Commerce went there, it would give a morale boost to the city. It had suffered a lot and it wanted to get its tourism on and going again and given that Ron Brown had this hole in his schedule, this would be an excellent way to fill it.

In any event, Ron Brown’s schedule got turned around and instead of going to Dubrovnik on the Friday and maybe doing the other part of the trip on the Thursday…he was going to come in earlier….Apparently Ron Brown, when he heard about Dubrovnik and the possibility of going there, he really wanted to go. This was a complicated itinerary, which he was going to be in and out of Croatia a number of times. In fact on the night he arrived, he flew into Zagreb on a small U.S. government plane, a very small jet, and four people to join up with the 707 that was going to take him on the trip to Bosnia.

I went out and greeted him as I did with most visitors. We drove in to the airport together. I gave him a few key points that needed to be made on terms of U.S. policy for Croatia, stressing that Croatia was not adhering to its obligations to treat its Serbian citizens on an equal basis with the Croatian citizens, and that Croatia needed to be a country that respected human rights if it was going to get the economic benefits….

I remember seeing the Croatian woman who had served as the translator for me on a number of occasions and who was going on this trip to be the translator. She was a little bewildered as to why she was going. In other circumstances I might myself have wanted to go on the trip because it would have been quite a convenient way to go from Zagreb to Dubrovnik. It would have given me a chance to go to Sarajevo to see what the latest developments were, to see what was going on in Tuzla and then arrive with the Commerce Secretary in Dubrovnik.

However, my fiancé, now my wife, was staying with me and we didn’t have a lot of time together and she wasn’t feeling well. I never raised the issue. The plane was full. There might not have been space and I did tell Ron Brown, “If you don’t mind, I won’t see you off tomorrow morning, but I’ll see you in Dubrovnik.”

“We’ve lost radio contact with Ron Brown’s plane and it’s disappeared from the radar”

The next day the weather was not very good and I went down in President Tuđman ’s plane with his cabinet — he wasn’t there — in the Challenger [jet] to Dubrovnik with the prime minister, the Croatian ambassador to the United States went as usual, the economic minister, a number of other cabinet ministers for this great event.

As we approached Dubrovnik there was zero visibility. I knew the pilot of the plane fairly well because he had flown me and [former Norwegian Foreign Minister and UN Special Representative on former Yugoslavia] Thorvald Stoltenberg a lot when we had gone from Zagreb out to Osijek to do the negotiations in the Erdut agreement [to end the Croatian War for Independence] and I’d flow with Tuđman to the United States on other occasions.

We came in and we couldn’t find the runway and we veered to the right over the sea.

Okay, first I should say as we were coming in through this bad weather, there was the kind of gallows humor that sometimes exists among passengers on a plane when it is very turbulent and as usual the Croatian ambassador to the United States was making jokes and I was teasing him.

I was asking whether Tuđman (right) would be more upset at losing his plane or losing his cabinet.

Then I looked over to the prime minister who was sitting opposite me and I could see that he was very nervous. I also knew that he was a pilot. So, this affected my thinking. When we couldn’t find the runway the first time, as we were circling back around I said to him, “Zlatko, look there’s no point in attempting a landing in this weather because we’ll get on the ground at some risk, but there’s no way that the U.S. air force is going to land this VIP plane if the weather conditions aren’t safe. So, we’ll be there and Ron Brown will go to Split. We shouldn’t do it.”

By the time this whole exchange had been completed and we in fact were on approach and we landed. We then stayed on the plane. It was raining ferociously. We stayed on the plane awhile because we didn’t want to get wet and we were waiting for the Ron Brown plane to land. We then got off; there were umbrellas and so on.

I should explain that the Dubrovnik airport had been destroyed, it had been taken over by the Montenegrins in 1991 and been looted and destroyed and it was only partially rebuilt at this point. One of the things they didn’t have was the instruments for an instrument landing.

Anyhow, we went inside the terminal where there was a table set up with food and I think there were some girls dressed in traditional outfits to make an offering to Ron Brown. All the local dignitaries were there; the Croatian cabinet was there. Everybody wanted to make an impression. Chris Hedges was there from The New York Times purely by coincidence. He wasn’t covering this, but he’d been in Bosnia, Mostar I guess, and he’d come out and he was going to take the Croatia airlines flight from Dubrovnik to Zagreb, but that had been canceled.

All the commercial flights had been canceled because of the weather.

In any event, at 3:25 Mateša took me aside and said, “Ron Brown’s plane — we’ve lost radio contact with Ron Brown’s plane and it’s disappeared from the radar.” I had this total reaction of disbelief. I mean, I knew what this meant, but it just, it just didn’t seem possible. Airplane crashes are something you read about, but they’re so rare most people, thank God, never experience them.

So, I looked at him and I said, “Zlatko, is this serious?” I knew it was.

He said, “Yes. What can I do for you?”

“Over the top of the mountain were just pieces of wreckage, burned parts and bodies”

I said, “Well, I better make some calls.” I didn’t want to do it on the mobile phone because they could be monitored. So, we went back to Tuđman’s plane, the Challenger, and I called the Ops Center [the Department’s Operations Center, manned 24 hours a day] and asked to speak with the Secretary or the most senior person who was available. It turned out to be [Under Secretary for Political Affairs] Peter Tarnoff and I told him that we’d lost radio contact and it had disappeared from the radar screen.

The Croatians immediately began to mobilize for a search. I got on the phone to try to get U.S. forces involved in the search and rescue. We had a report that a French I-4 helicopter had seen the plane in the water and bodies floating. It turned out that about 6:00 I think we’d gone into Dubrovnik and actually left the airport, but the plane was found on a mountain near the airport now known as St. John the Baptist.

What had happened was a local man had heard the noise of the plane flying overhead and thought this was very unusual that he hadn’t seen anything and then the clouds had lifted and you could see the plane wreckage and he didn’t have a phone. So, he had had to walk down to find a phone and the rescuers came up.

The Croatians did what they could. There was one stewardess who was alive in the back of the plane, a military officer, Sergeant Kelly, but she died being transported to the hospital in Dubrovnik. I went up that night in the rain with the prime minister to the crash site as it was getting dark and in the end it was clear that it would be quite difficult to get up to the top of the mountain.

I didn’t want our VIP delegation to interfere with the rescue effort so I said, “No, we won’t go now. There’s nothing that we can do.”

The next morning, the White House had wanted me to do some television shows. So, I think I did the Today Show and of course I had to be very careful and simply say that the weather was terrible and that the plane wasn’t where it should have been, fairly obvious.

We went up the mountain and the engine was in one place and the tail was reasonably intact and over the top of the mountain were just pieces of wreckage, burned parts and bodies. There wasn’t anything that could be done for anybody. I went down the mountain. As we went down I slipped and fell off the side of the mountain and ended up upside down in a tree. Fortunately I was only scratched up and not injured. I could have been.

They had no business flying into Dubrovnik”

I think later that day I went back to Zagreb and then came down as the bodies were brought off the mountain and identified them. On Good Friday, which was a beautiful day, it was the day Ron Brown was originally thought to go to Dubrovnik, I flew down with Tuđman and we each gave speeches. It was one of the more difficult speeches I’ve ever done. I wrote it myself as I did almost all my speeches. I wanted to find some words to give meaning to the sacrifice that these people had made.

It was Good Friday, sort of commonplace, Biblical passage. “Blessed are the peace makers, that they should be called the children of God” and how these people had died on a mission of peace to try and make a better place for the people of the region. Then the bodies went in one C5A [cargo plane], there was a second one as backup for reasons that weren’t clear with me, but that one did make the Atlantic crossing. I didn’t go with it although, as usual, the Croatian ambassador was there.

There was an investigation, a very extensive investigation and the determination of the cause of the crash was that the first underlying cause was that they had no business flying into Dubrovnik. Dubrovnik was operating on visual flight rules for U.S. VIP aircraft and the instrument landing system had been destroyed and the weather didn’t justify coming on visual flight rules.

I learned a lot about aviation and flight instruments through this experience, but there were beacons that the pilots used to determine the course. Normally, for these beacons you should have two receivers and then you can line up on the two points and find a routing, but because this is a system that isn’t used much, the aircraft itself actually only had one receiver and so the pilot had to switch back and forth to triangulate, but the manual said you weren’t supposed to do that. They got the bearing and they simply entered it wrong by 10 degrees and that took them into the mountain rather than into the airport.

The other thing I learned was that our VIP aircraft, far from being super safe, don’t meet the same standards as the terms of equipment that they have for safety features as commercial airliners. Notably there was no black box.