Staff Reporter

Two years after Tommy Preziose's plane plunged 3,000 feet out of the dusk into the Mobile-Tensaw Delta, federal investigators still can't say whether it broke apart on impact with the marsh or whether something slammed into it before it ever hit the ground.

The eerie details of Preziose's final moments remain an enigma and a source of contention within the National Transportation Safety Board and have sparked a $76 million wrongful death lawsuit against the federal government.

In an unprecedented finding, Butch Wilson, the veteran NTSB investigator originally assigned to the case, said in a preliminary report released in April that the plane collided with an unknown object in mid-air. NTSB supervisors in Washington, D.C., called Wilson's conclusion premature and began their own investigation, which hasn't wrapped up.

One possible cause of the Oct. 23, 2003, crash that both Wilson and the other NTSB officials ruled out was precisely the one posed in the lawsuit, which was filed Oct. 25 in federal court in Mobile. Lawyers for Preziose's estate claim air traffic controllers steered him into the tornado-like wake of a FedEx DC-10.

A document accompanying the lawsuit accuses Federal Aviation Administration employees of failing "to provide adequate vertical as well as horizontal separatioclearance from the 'heavy DC-10.'" They also did not issue "the required warnings to Mr. Preziose of the clear and present danger of the wake turbulence he would experience," the document claims.

Wilson's report, however, noted that the DC-10 was flying 1,000 feet higher than Preziose's Cessna 208B Cargomaster. Moreover, the report said, the two planes never crossed paths. The northeast-bound Cessna would have had to have been behind the southbound DC-10 at some point to have been battered by the disturbed air left by the larger plane.

"Radar data shows that the C-208 was not in a position to encounter the wake turbulence from nearby DC-10," an NTSB update declared in June.

Making a mystery:

While the preliminary report ruled out wake turbulence, it touched off a mystery by concluding the Cessna collided with something in mid-air. Wilson, who is based in Atlanta, had the Air Force conduct tests to identify possible sources of nearly three dozen red polymer smears found on the outside of the fuselage. Those marks formed a large part of the theory that helped make this one of the stranger investigations in the agency's annals.

Wilson had the marks tested against a swatch of red fabric from inside the plane, a piece of a red cargo bag, even a military drone. Nothing matched. Ultimately, the markings and the severe damage to the plane's engine helped convince him something struck the plane, his report indicated.

No confirmed wreckage from any other plane has been found and no other planes were reported missing at the time. Members of the search crews who retrieved the relatively few large pieces of the plane said it could not have come down in a softer spot -- two or three feet of water atop 8 to 10 feet of "puff mud."

Nevertheless, Doug Hardy, an investigator for Pratt & Whitney who examined the wreckage, said recently that the engine block appeared to have slammed into something solid.

"It hit something hard," he said, "because the engine was split. It actually came apart."

There was no evidence that the engine failed, he said.

Wreckage reclaimed:

By the time Wilson's account was posted, the wreckage had been turned over to the United States Aircraft Insurance Group. After the Mobile Register reported Wilson's findings, NTSB higher-ups took the unusual step of reclaiming the plane's remains and having it sent to the agency's academy in Ashburn, Va., for further review. Keith Holloway, an NTSB spokesman, said last week that investigators have completed computer simulations of the crash. The agency is waiting on the chemical analysis of samples from some 20 possible sources of the red marks, he said.

Wilson had been unable to identify the source of a chunk of black metal embedded in one of the Cessna's wings. Investigators have since decided it came from inside the cockpit.

Wilson's supervisors haven't disavowed his assessment -- a mid-air collision. The problem they have with it, according to Holloway, was that they felt it came too soon.

"That's a statement that is a conclusion," he said, "and we aren't at a point in this investigation to make any type of conclusion."

Wilson declined to discuss the case in detail.

Preziose, a 54-year-old who lived in Mobile, was an experienced pilot familiar with the plane and the area. No one has suggested that the mildly overcast skies were a factor, and the plane had passed a routine maintenance check days earlier.

Flying for DHL Worldwide Express with the call sign Night Ship 282, Preziose took off from Mobile Downtown Airport at Brookley with 420 pounds of business letters. Air traffic control recordings and radar data indicated his ascent to his cruising altitude of 3,000 feet was uneventful.

'I need to deviate':

Around 7:45 p.m., Wilson's report states, Preziose had the second of two exchanges with an air traffic controller about the location of the DC-10, acknowledging he saw it above him and more than a mile away. Seconds later, he burst on the radio repeating, "I needed to deviate." The transmission cut off when he was saying it a fourth time, right about the time the plane vanished from radar.

Preziose's sister, Moira Wade, is also a pilot and has visited the crash site numerous times collecting debris from the plane. She thinks her brother knew he would not survive and that his last words were meant to give investigators a clue to what happened, that he had to make an emergency maneuver to avoid something.

The lawsuit suggests Preziose's words were a correction to the air traffic controllers, that they should have sent him on a different flight path. NTSB officials have not publicly addressed the significance of the words.

Down in the Delta:

Preziose's remains were found amid the wreckage in Big Bateau Bay in the W.L. Holland Wildlife Management Area, a locale popular with hunters seeking ducks and boar. The spot is near Spanish Fort and about a mile north of the Causeway.

Documents filed in Mobile County Circuit Court last fall on behalf of Preziose's estate named FedEx and Cessna as potential defendants, though the estate's lawyers apparently backed off that course. Greg Breedlove, one of the lawyers for the estate, downplayed the significance of the red marks.

"We believe that the markings were already on the plane before the accident," perhaps from the Cessna being grazed by airport ground equipment, he said last month.

Lawyers for the FAA had not filed a response to the lawsuit as of Wednesday.

Holloway offered no timetable for the final report. Investigators have been stretched particularly thin lately, he said. It was only last week that the agency issued its report on the Nov. 12, 2001, crash of American Airlines Flight 587, which killed 265 people in the New York City borough of Queens. And investigators also haven't released their findings on the April 24, 2003, crash at Brookley that killed pilot Marvin T. Anderson, 44, of Atlanta.

As for what happened to Night Ship 282, "It's gonna be a while before we have a conclusion on this investigation," Holloway said.