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Day of crash still haunts player's pal

By GLENN SHEELEY, Cox News Service


-- Jon Brendle called his buddy and Orlando neighbor Payne Stewart the night before, asking if he wanted to visit the House of Blues to see Kenny Wayne Sheppard.

Stewart told Brendle, the PGA Tour rules official, he couldn't make it. He was flying out early in the morning by private jet for Dallas to visit the site of a course he was designing, on the way to the Tour Championship in Houston.

No problem, Brendle said. See you there.

He never did.

Stewart died in a plane crash on Oct. 25, 1999, several months after winning the U.S. Open at Pinehurst No. 2, site of this year's championship.

The knock came on Jon and Martha Brendle's bedroom door that morning from a house guest who had caught early details over the internet. A Learjet 35, registered as N47BA, was flying on auto-pilot over the Midwest, with no one answering radio calls, and Payne Stewart was believed to be among those on board.

"I came flying out of my room and went straight over to the house," said Brendle, who lived next to Payne and Tracey, his Australian wife, for five years on Pocket Lake. "When I got there, Tracey had just walked in the house [from a chiropractor appointment] and their secretary, Gloria, was verifying the tail numbers of the plane that was loose."

"How do you know?" said Tracey.

"It's on TV, Tracey," Brendle said.

"I turned on the TV and the F-16s were viewing the plane," Brendle said. "I couldn't grasp it. I'm thinking James Bond-type stuff, like we can save that plane. . . . There's nothing wrong. . . . She kind of grabbed me. She had already gathered herself to know it was serious and she said, 'Johnny, it's going to run out of petrol.' "

From all indications, the jet had lost cabin pressure shortly after takeoff, quickly killing everyone on board. In addition to Stewart, 42, the passengers included agents Robert Fraley, 46, and Van Ardan, 45; and course designer Bruce Borland, 40. Also killed were pilot Michael Kling, 43, and co-pilot Stephanie Bellegarrigue, 27.

Brendle suddenly felt a need to pick up Payne's children, Aaron (then 9) and Chelsea (13) at school.

"When we got into the car, I told them, 'Look, here's the deal. Dad and Robert [Fraley, their godfather] are asleep on the plane and the plane is flying free over the United States," Brendle said.

Aaron said, "Let's call Dad and wake him."

Getting Stewart's voice on his cellphone message was chilling for Aaron to hear and Brendle to overhear. When they reached the house, the police cars and TV stations already arrived.

Said Brendle, "I remember Chelsea screaming, 'Oh my God.' I know she knew right then."

The plane, having run out of fuel, crashed in a South Dakota field at about 1:20 p.m.

Tracey took the kids upstairs and told them.

"About 20 minutes later," said Brendle, "she let me in the room and Aaron and I just sat and talked about his Dad and cried, and about how we had to go on; how we have to keep talking about him."

Every chance he gets, Brendle tried to rekindle what was snuffed out that day. All the time, whether at a tournament stop or at home, thoughts drift back to things he and Stewart did together and good times they shared. For several years after Stewart died, Brendle put a flower at his old champion's locker at the Bryon Nelson Classic and kept it fresh for the week of the tournament.

Two of the other wives Debbie Ardan and Dixie Fraley have remarried, but Tracey Stewart remains in love with the blond-haired, flamboyant man who was stolen from her six years ago.

In May, Tracey Stewart and the children described their pain and suffering in a lawsuit seeking damages against the Learjet company. Fraley's family was a co-plantiff. Jurors ruled in favor of Learjet recently.

The lawsuit blamed Learjet for the deaths due to a failed valve adapter that directly contributed to a rapid depressurization of the chartered jet. Learjet claimed the crash was the fault of the now defunct Sun Jet Aviation Company, hired to fly Stewart and the others. Learjet said poor maintenance and inadequately trained pilots was to blame.

"I'll miss growing old with him," Tracey said of Payne at the trial. "We were supposed to do that together."

In one sense Brendle is unsettled about Pinehurst, for the wound to be opened. Yet part of him is eager for the celebration of Stewart's finest moment.

"I'm dreading," Brendle said, "that the U.S. Open might be one of the last times we bring him up."

Glenn Sheeley writes for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. E-mail: gsheeley@ajc.com

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