Capitol Perspectives: Further reflections on Gov. Mel Carnahan’s death

October 30, 2020 5:45 am

Former Missouri Gov. Mel Carnahan died in a plane crash on Oct. 16, 2000.

The recent thoughts written by others about the tragic death of Gov. Mel Carnahan two decades ago have prompted me to add some personal details.

There was something about Carnahan that touched all of us who covered the statehouse during his time in the Capitol.

The informal, completely transparent and laid-back personality of Carnahan were displayed when he chose to run for lieutenant governor in 1988, four years after his term as State Treasurer had expired.

No press release. No advance anything.

Instead, he simply called me from Rolla where he was practicing law to tell me he was driving to the Capitol to file for office and asked that I alert the press corps that he would be available for interviews in my newsroom.

I initially felt uncomfortable gathering reporters for a political candidate. But his request was so typical of Carnahan, simply seeking to talk with reporters rather than organizing a media event.

When he met with us in my office there was no prepared speech. He just made himself available to answer whatever questions we had.

There’s a sad journalistic sidelight to Carnahan’s last night in 2000.

A former student of mine, Springfield KSMU’s news director Missy Shelton Belote, was scheduled to join Carnahan on his flight from the St. Louis area to the bootheel in southeast Missouri as part of her day following Carnahan during his U.S. Senate campaign.

But shortly before that fatal flight, Chris Sifford, one of Carnahan’s closest advisers, told her the governor wanted just his staff on board because they were going to talk about political matters.

Chris told Missy not to worry, the weather was so bad, they likely would return to the airport.

Being bumped from that fatal flight remains to this day a deeply emotional incident for her.

Later that night, KMOX called me that they had a tip of a plane crash in Jefferson County that might involve the governor.

I gave the station Sifford’s personal cell and the Highway Patrol HQ number because the Patrol provides the governor’s security.

There obviously was no answer from Sifford’s phone. And the Patrol’s security person was not on the flight.

After the KMOX call, I promptly went to the Capitol basement.

Because it’s the parking garage for top state officials, it’s the place-to-be in times of breaking statehouse developments requiring officials to return to the statehouse in late evening hours.

The first person I encountered was Becky Cook, the Secretary of State appointed by Carnahan after Judy Moriarty’s impeachment and office removal.

Leaving her car, Cook, who had been very close with the Carnahan family, was in tears.

I immediately suspected she’d arrived at the Capitol so late in the evening for a meeting of the state Disability Board, which she silently acknowledged.

The Disability Board, defined by the state Constitution, is composed of top state officials empowered to transfer the powers of the governor to the lieutenant governor if the board determines the governor is unable to perform the governor’s duties.

A short time later, another board member, Lt. Gov. Roger Wilson arrived in the Capitol basement parking garage.

He was in a car driven by a Highway Patrol officer (who normally transports just the governor) and immediately parked in the spot reserved for the governor’s car.

Seeing me when he left the car, Wilson sadly nodded his head to me in another confirmation.

As the only reporter in the garage and with Disability Board members arriving in the Capitol garage with their silent confirmations, I became the first to advise Missourians in a live report for KMOX about the governmental actions being taken concerning the governor.

Just a few hours later, early in the morning, the Disability Board concluded Carnahan was not able to govern, making Wilson the acting governor who then held a very somber news conference, in near tears.

Late the second night, after official confirmation of Carnahan’s death, Wilson became governor and held another sad news conference.

To this day, I have not discarded Sifford’s business card where he wrote on the back his home and cell phone numbers which I gave KMOX that went unanswered the night he died on the Carnahan flight.

Chris’ business card remains on my study tack board.

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Phill Brooks
Phill Brooks

Phill Brooks has been a Missouri statehouse reporter since 1970, making him dean of the statehouse press corps. He is the statehouse correspondent for KMOX Radio, director of MDN and an emeritus faculty member of the Missouri School of Journalism. He has covered every governor since the late Warren Hearnes.