Thirty-one years ago today (March 16, 1991), seven of Reba McEntire‘s band members, along with her tour manager, were tragically killed in a plane crash near San Diego, Calif. The aircraft was en route from a private concert that McEntire had played just a few hours earlier.
On March 15, McEntire and her band performed for IBM executives and were next scheduled to perform in Ft. Wayne, Ind. The singer, her then-husband, Narvel Blackstock, and her stylist, Sandy Spika, elected to spend the night in California, as McEntire was recovering from a case of bronchitis; the rest of her crew, however, headed to Ft. Wayne.
McEntire chartered two jets to transport her band members and tour manager. At approximately 1:45AM, the first plane, a Hawker Siddele, crashed into the side of Otay Mountain, 10 miles east of the Brown Field airport. Chris Austin, Kirk Cappello, Joey Cigainero, Paula Kay Evans, Jim Hammon, Terry Jackson, Anthony Saputo and Michael Thomas perished in the crash, as did pilot Donald Holms and co-pilot Chris Hollinger.
A second plane carrying two more of McEntire’s band members took off a few minutes later, unaware of the tragedy.
“The planes took off three minutes apart. The plane that crashed took off first,” Trisha McClanahan, a spokesperson for McEntire, told the Los Angeles Times. “The pilot of the second plane didn’t see anything. They just knew that they had lost radio contact with the other. They continued flying and were diverted to Nashville.”
McEntire, Blackstock and Spika were woken up and informed of the accident. McEntire flew to Nashville the next day.
“She was very close to all of them. Some of them had been with her for years,” said Jennifer Bohler, on McEntire’s behalf, following the deadly accident. “Reba is totally devastated by this. It’s like losing part of your family.”
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McEntire chronicles the heartbreaking loss in her autobiography, Reba: My Story, released in 1994, saying, “Those of us — family members, colleagues, friends — who lost people in the crash will be marked by it forever” (quote via Country Weekly). The singer also remembers how Vince Gill offered her support in the aftermath, kindly suggesting, “If you want me to, I’ll be on your stage. I’ll be there for you.”
In 2012, McEntire shared her heartache with Oprah Winfrey on an episode of Oprah’s Master Class.
“When we were notified, Narvel went and met with our pilot, and he told us what had happened,” McEntire tearfully recalls. “And Narvel came back to the hotel room where I was — it was two or three o’clock in the morning — and he said one of the planes had crashed, and I said, ‘Are they okay?’ He said, ‘I don’t think so.’ I said, ‘But you’re not sure?’ He said, ‘I don’t think so.'”
Following the accident, McEntire released her next album, For My Broken Heart, on Oct. 1, 1991. The project is dedicated to those killed in the crash, and its final track, “If I Only Had Known,” alludes to the loss: “If I had only known / I’d never hear your voice again / I’d memorize each thing you ever said / And on those lonely nights / I could think of them once more / Keep your words alive inside my head / If I had only known / I’d never hear your voice again.”
“It seems your current emotional status determines what music you’d like to hear,” the iconic artist says in the liner notes for For My Broken Heart. “That’s what happened on the song selection for this album. If for any reason you can relate to the emotion packed inside these songs, I hope it’s a form of healing for all our broken hearts.”
Even though three decades have passed since the crash, the memory is still just as painful for those left behind.
“It’s surreal,” Bohler tells Billboard. “One person having an accident is hard enough, but you multiply that times eight, and it was eight of your friends, it makes it really hard. You enter a protective shell, and you relay the information as best you can, because that’s what you’re supposed to do. But I can tell you no amount of education or on-the-job training can prepare you for that kind of situation.”
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