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Family, friends of crash victims begin to grieve

A small benefits company contacts clients as funerals are planned for three staff members and their pilot.

By JEFF HARRINGTON and DONG-PHUONG NGUYEN
Published December 14, 2003

TAMPA - After an airplane crash in Tennessee that killed three members of a small Tampa financial services company and their pilot, family and friends are beginning the difficult task of planning funeral services right before the holidays.

The family of Hani Boutros, 27, of Brandon, said Saturday that they would hold private services for him this afternoon at a Coptic Orthodox church in Tampa.

Tampa car dealer Carl Lindell Jr., whose close friend Laura Jones, 44, of Tampa, died in the crash, said Jones' parents had flown in from Pittsburgh. He will be spending the afternoon with them, along with her 18-year-old daughter, as they planned her funeral. He expected it would be held early this week in South Tampa.

"This is just very very hard on everyone," said Lindell, whose car dealership used the services of Saunders Advisory Group, a benefits administration company.

He knew Jones, a financial adviser with Saunders Advisory, for more than seven years.

"She was such a giver and cared about people. Everything she did, she did well," he said.

A third of the company's small staff - chief executive officer John Saunders Jr., 40, and employees Jones and Boutros - died in an airplane crash Thursday in eastern Tennessee, along with their pilot, David Jochman, 49, of New Port Richey. Relatives of Jochman could not be reached Saturday.

Officials at Johnson City Municipal Hospital in Tennessee would not release information Saturday about the condition of John Saunders Sr., 58, the sole survivor of the plane crash. Lindell said Saturday that he received word that Saunders "is going to be all right."

On Saturday, the Web site for Saunders Advisory came up as being "under construction."

A day earlier, phones had been ringing inside the company's South Tampa offices. Customers were being called, and a few employees were in the field doing what they always do: signing up 401(k) retirement accounts.

It was a coordinated attempt at normalcy. There could be no greater illusion for the family-run, grief-stricken company.

Saunders Sr. was ostensibly in charge of the Tampa company during the crisis, though he was in a hospital bed 700 miles away in Tennessee.

"All the planning in the world can't prepare you for a scenario like this," said crisis management consultant Jeff Tucker of the Tucker/Hall public relations firm in Tampa.

Tucker isn't involved directly in helping Saunders Advisory. But he said his advice would be simple: First, take time to grieve individually and as a company "family." Then worry about business details.

"You usually have to go through a collective period of shock, and it comes in waves," he said. "It will take some weeks before everyone really feels like they want things to return to normal."

Saunders Jr., his father, Boutros and Jones left Tampa Bay Executive Airport in southern Pasco County on Monday in a twin-engine Cessna piloted by Jochman.

It was unclear Friday where the group spent the first three days. But on Thursday, they had a stopover in Columbus, Ohio, to see clients before heading to Tennessee for a meeting with Forward Air, based in Greeneville.

The plane crashed in a wooded area at 10:52 a.m. on approach to the Greeneville-Greene County Municipal Airport.

According to the Federal Aviation Administration, the pilot reported an engine problem and declared an emergency.

Bill Brown, director of the Greene County Emergency Management Agency, and the first official to reach the crash site, told reporters that the pilot made a three-word distress call. "Emergency," "ice" and "engine" were heard.

"It looked like (the plane) came almost vertically down through the trees," said Bill Jones, a reporter for the Greeneville Sun, who went to the scene.

Brown found the elder Saunders about 40 feet from the burning wreckage. He had been thrown out of the plane as it crashed.

Saunders was able to give Brown his name, the names of the others on board and telephone numbers.

"He was fully conscious and fully alert," Brown said. "He was also in pain and probably in shock."

Saunders joined his son's company in 1993 as an adviser. His son formed the company from his den.

The impact on Saunders Advisory is acute because the younger Saunders was so intricately tied to the company's success, both as a visionary and an energetic leader.

"He was larger than life. That's why everyone is so blown away by it," said Thad Cook, a Saunders family friend and longtime business partner.

Cook's brokerage firm was used by Saunders Advisory to buy and sell securities for clients.

- Times researcher John Martin and staff writer Shannon Colavecchio-Van Sickler contributed to this report. Jeff Harrington can be reached at harrington@sptimes.com or 226-3407.

[Last modified December 14, 2003, 01:34:16]


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