Philadelphia Inquirer co-owner Lewis Katz was killed along with six other people in a fiery plane crash in Massachusetts, just days after reaching a deal that many hoped would end months of infighting at the newspaper and help restore it to its former glory.
The 72-year-old businessman’s Gulfstream corporate jet ran off the end of a runway, plunged down an embankment and erupted in flames during a takeoff attempt Saturday night at Hanscom Field outside Boston, authorities said. There were no survivors.
Katz was returning to New Jersey from a gathering at the home of Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Doris Kearns Goodwin. Also killed was a next-door neighbor of Katz’s, Anne Leeds, a 74-year-old retired preschool teacher he had invited to accompany him.
The identities of the other victims weren’t immediately released. Nancy Phillips, Katz’s longtime partner and city editor at the Inquirer, was not aboard.
The plane was carrying four passengers, two pilots and a cabin attendant, according to the National Transportation Safety Board. Investigators said it was too soon to discuss the cause of the crash.
Katz made his fortune investing in parking lots and the New York Yankees’ cable network. He once owned the NBA’s New Jersey Nets and the NHL’s New Jersey Devils and in 2012 became a minority investor in the Inquirer.
Last Tuesday, Katz and Harold H.F. “Gerry” Lenfest struck a deal to gain full control of the Inquirer as well as the Philadelphia Daily News and Philly.com by buying out their co-owners for $88 million – an agreement that ended a very public feud over the Inquirer’s business and journalism direction.
Lenfest said Sunday that the deal will be delayed but will still go through.
When bidding on the company, Katz and Lenfest vowed to fund in-depth journalism and retain the Inquirer’s Pulitzer-winning editor, Bill Marimow.
“It’s going to be a lot of hard work. We’re not kidding ourselves. It’s going to be an enormous undertaking,” Katz said then, noting that advertising and circulation revenues had fallen for years. “Hopefully, (the Inquirer) will get fatter.”
The fight over the future of the city’s two major newspapers was sparked last year by a decision to fire Marimow. Katz and Lenfest wanted a judge to block the firing. Katz sued a fellow owner, powerful Democratic powerbroker George Norcross. The dispute was settled when Katz and Lenfest, a cable magnate-turned-philanthropist, bought out their partners.
The Inquirer has changed hands five times in eight years, and like many other newspapers, it has seen a downturn in business that has forced it to cut staff, close bureaus and scale back its ambitions.
Three previous owners, including Norcross, said in a statement that they were deeply saddened by Katz’s death.
“Lew’s long-standing commitment to the community and record of strong philanthropy across the region, particularly Camden where he was born and raised, will ensure that his legacy will live on,” they said.
The event at Goodwin’s home in Concord, Massachusetts, was held to support an education initiative by Goodwin’s son. Afterward, Katz, Goodwin’s friend of nearly 20 years, joined the author and others at dinner, where they talked about their shared interests, including journalism, Goodwin said.
“The last thing he said to me upon leaving for the plane was that most of all what we shared was our love and pride for our children,” she said in a statement.
Leeds’ husband, James P. Leeds Sr., town commissioner of Longport, New Jersey, said he received a text message from his wife four minutes before the crash saying they were about to take off.
NTSB investigator Luke Schiada said a witness reported the plane never left the ground.
Former Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell said Katz had invited him on the flight, but Rendell had another commitment. Rendell said Katz had been thrilled by the Inquirer deal and died at “maybe the high point of his life.”
Hanscom Field is about 20 miles northwest of Boston. The regional airport serves mostly corporate aviation, private pilots and commuter air services.
Dale reported from in Philadelphia. Associated Press writers Stephen Singer and Michael Melia in Hartford, Connecticut, contributed to this report.