By 1991, Reba McEntire had established herself as a bona fide country superstar. She already had a whopping 15 studio albums under her belt. Those included an amazing eight gold albums in a row.
She proudly owned a Grammy and countless ACM and CMA awards. Her 1990 album Rumor Has It was well on its way to its current platinum status. And on top of that, she launched her acting career with the 1990 film Tremors.
By all accounts, Reba owned the title of country’s queen. But in the early hours of March 16, 1991, a devastating tragedy changed her life and career forever.
McEntire and her band were in San Diego, Cali. for a private performance for IBM executives. Because the crew had another performance the next night all the way in Indiana, the band chartered two private planes for transportation.
Suffering from a bout of bronchitis, McEntire and then-husband/manager Narvel Blackstock hung back in California for the night. They planned on taking another plane later in the day.
The Los Angeles Times detailed what happened next. The first plane took off from a small airstrip around 1:45 a.m. It carried seven members of McEntire’s band, plus her tour manager, the pilot and co-pilot. And a second plane carrying two more members of her band left just three minutes later.
Pilots on the second plane said they lost contact with the first plane not long after takeoff, but didn’t see any sign of trouble. Likewise, a San Diego air traffic controller was in the middle of communicating with the pilot when the signal dropped.
Neither realized it at the time, but a terrible tragedy befell the first plane. About 10 minutes after takeoff, the aircraft clipped the side of Otay Mountain, dumping its fuel and cartwheeling across the range.
A Navy controller at a nearby base phoned the FAA in San Diego, alerting them of a flash he saw on the mountain range. When officials arrived at the scene, they found parts of the plane strewn across the mountaintop and nearby roads. One engine lay practically harmed, while artifacts like books, hair spray and clothing littered the area, though intact.
Yet, as the debris went on, investigators found the band and crew, whose bodies had been so traumatized they were unidentifiable. All 10 people aboard the plane perished.
The FAA diverted the second plane, which was headed for a fuel stop in Amarillo, Texas. Instead, they went towards Nashville, stopping for fuel in Memphis. That’s where the pilots told them about the wreck.
At 2:30 in the morning, McEntire’s pilot called her hotel room to speak to Narvel. He quickly left the room to go visit the pilot, eventually returning to tell Reba what they knew.
Though they originally hoped for survivors, the grisly crash scene painted a stark reality. Blackstock notified the families of the fallen immediately. They didn’t want the families to hear it on the news. The band also cancelled several upcoming tour dates.
But with the families’ blessing, McEntire appeared on stage just a week later at the Academy Awards for her previously scheduled performance. The gravity of the situation very apparent, her performance of “I’m Checking Out” brought the house down.
Reba also sat down for an interview with People magazine only two days after the crash. In her first television interview since the tragedy six months later, she explained the decision to Oprah.
“It was very hard to do, but the story had to be told,” Reba said. “I wanted to do it with Jane Sanderson with People magazine, because Jane is a good friend of mine and I knew she would tell the story like I told it. It was very protective of the families.”
The article recounted tales of volunteers at the crash site who needed to later be calmed by a psychologist. But it also noted that, mercifully, the crash and explosion were instantaneous. The victims likely never even knew it happened.
Reba also shared the music community’s overwhelming support during the terrible tragedy. She told Oprah Dolly Parton called her and offered her literally everything. Reba said, “She called me at the office and said, ‘You need my band, management, buses, take ’em. Take anything you want.'”
Bit by bit, one step at a time, McEntire and the music community as a whole banded together to overcome the horrific tragedy.
That fateful flight also played a huge role in the rest of Reba’s career. She almost immediately returned to the studio to record her sixteenth album. In the album notes, Reba called the process of making that particular record “a form of healing.”
She chose songs specifically to deal with the loss. That album, For My Broken Heart, became one of the most iconic in her entire career. It was a stark contrast to the pop-laden Rumor Has It that McEntire was touring behind when the accident occurred.
The album received unanimous praise. It spent 20 weeks in the Top 10 of the chart, eventually selling four million copies. The album opener, “For My Broken Heart,” hits you like a sledgehammer.
The whole record is a poignant reminder of just how powerful music can be. And how much it really matters not just during the good times, but the moments in life that test the very fabric of our being.
The 1990s, of course, became a golden era for McEntire. While an accident like the one that befell her band could’ve destroyed any artist’s career, McEntire and the other surviving members forged ahead in her band’s memory.
But that doesn’t mean she doesn’t think about them ever day. In fact, earlier this year was the 25th anniversary of the plane crash. In a post on Facebook, McEntire revealed she took a helicopter to the crash site last year.