"The problem is that there are about 10 working theories of what happened, and there's a problem with each of them," one source close to the NTSB investigation says. "You run them to the end, and there are questions that logic can't answer. Just like the bulkhead theory. Sounds good, but if there was a crack great enough for instant decompression, why didn't the plane break up as it continued to fly? The challenge here is that you have a catastrophic failure that was contained somehow."
A couple of other Learjets, different models, have met similar fates. In 1983 a Lear traveling from Vienna to Hamburg overflew its destination and kept traveling on automatic pilot, chased by military jets from four countries. It crashed in the sea off Iceland and never was recovered. In 1990 a Learjet crashed in the mountains near Hermosillo, Mexico. The wreckage never was brought down from the hills for testing.
"You get some strange calls after something like this," Watkins says. "I got one call, a voice saying the Chinese government had shot the plane down with a laser because Payne Stewart did an imitation of a Chinese person a few weeks earlier that was reported in the press and got him in trouble. Another voice said that one of the passengers had shot and killed everybody and then committed suicide. Crazy stuff."
The charter business at Sunjet dropped by 66% in the two months after the crash. Watkins says he understands. He says that after a ValuJet crashed in the Everglades in May 1996, he would have stayed away from ValuJet. Watkins also says he would have gotten on that Lear 35 on Oct. 25 without a second thought. "And I'd have taken my children with me," he says.
Tracey Stewart has written a book with Ken Abraham, Payne Stewart: The Authorized Biography, due out in June. It is being published by Broadman and Holman of Nashville, a religious press. She describes how Baker, her assistant, went to the First School in Orlando after the crash to collect Chelsea and Aaron and bring them home. The two women then told the children what had happened. Tracey notes that among the items recovered from the crash site were Payne's wedding ring, his SMU ring, the face of the Rolex watch he received at the first PGA tournament he won, the Scripture Promise books he had taken on the trip, and his WWJD bracelet.
Donna Stout still plans to pursue the dream of a mission in Haiti. She now lives in Oklahoma to be near her children. Debbie Ardan and Kate Borland each have four children to raise. Dixie Fraley just returned from a trip to England. Leader Enterprises still is in business, under the direction of D.J. Snell, a young associate. Lee Janzen says he still thinks he sees Stewart every day. He notices the way someone walks or smiles or laughs and is reminded of his friend. "He had the ability to make you smile," Janzen says. "That's what I remember most about him."
Hoffman says he is thinking about putting a memorial stone or some other marker where the crash occurred. He keeps the area locked up to keep out the curious. He never has brought the cows back to graze on the land, simply out of respect. The grass is higher there than it does in his other fields.
"I play a lot of golf," Hoffman says, "so I knew who Payne Stewart was. I love golf. If I could, I'd play golf every day. My brother, Blake, in fact, had been scheduled to have dinner with Payne Stewart in January at an event in Las Vegas. It's just one of the ironies. My family is filled with pilots, too. My dad flies. My brother flies. My brother-in-law is a pilot for United Parcel."
Hoffman says he thinks the crash has changed him. He is a young guy, 39 years old, fighting what he knows is a losing fight as an independent cattle rancher. The future will belong to the agricultural conglomerates. Hoffman is part of the last generation of his breed. He says he used to worry about that, worry about a lot of things. He does not do that now. "My father was diagnosed with cancer in the past year," he says. "Between that and the crash, I've done a lot of thinking. You get the idea that life is pretty precious. It can be taken away in an instant. I used to let a lot of little things bother me. I don't anymore." He says this as he drives across his property in his pickup truck. The truck bounces in holes and ruts, but it seems resilient.
It is twilight. Men are unloading large hay bales from three giant trucks. This will be feed for the cows for the next week. The sky runs forever over the flat land. "Let me show you something," Hoffman says on impulse. "Did you ever see a pheasant?"