Updated April 01, 1991 12:00 PM

Mercifully, it happened instantly. Minutes after the twin-engine Hawker Siddeley jet carrying seven members of country singer Reba McEntire’s band and her tour manager took off from Brown Field, south of San Diego, at 1:40 A.M. on Saturday. March 16, the jet’s wing clipped an outcropping of rock near the 3,572-foot peak of Otay Mountain east of the airfield. Investigators say the plane was going 200 mph when it cartwheeled and smashed into the side of the mountain, exploding on impact and killing all on board. A would-be rescuer said the passengers “probably had no idea what happened.”

Only four hours before the crash, guitarist Chris Austin, 27, backup singer Paula Kaye Evans, 33, bassist Terry Jackson, 28, bandleader Kirk Cappello, 28, guitarist Michael Thomas, 34, drummer Tony Saputo, 34, and keyboardist Joey Cigainero, 27, had performed a 75-minute set with McEntire at a convention for IBM “top performers” at San Diego’s Sheraton Harbor Island Hotel. Among their last numbers was one of McEntire’s favorites, “Sweet Dreams,” made famous by her idol, Patsy Cline, who died in a 1963 hillside plane crash (see page 32).

After the gig, the musicians and McEntire’s longtime tour manager, Jim Hammon, 40, were bound for a Saturday night concert in Fort Wayne, Ind.

At dawn on Saturday, when police arrived at the crash site a mile from the Mexican border, spewed jet fuel still burned on the rugged terrain. Debris from the wreckage was strewn for 300 yards around. “It was a grisly scene,” says San Diego Sheriffs Sgt. Michael O’Connor. Pieces of clothing, pages from a personal diary and shattered bits of musical instruments were scattered everywhere. Volunteers who helped collect remains and personal effects had to be calmed later by a psychologist.

Investigators are puzzled by the cause of the crash. “The radar showed the plane was holding altitude and air speed.” says the FAA’s Richard Childress. “It just disappeared.” Though visibility was good, he adds, “It’s possible [the pilot] didn’t see the mountain.”

McEntire had skipped the flight after her husband and manager, Narvel Blackstock, 34, urged her to stay behind and get a good night’s sleep in order to speed her recovery from a bout with bronchitis. McEntire planned to fly to Fort Wayne the next day. Band members Joe McGlohon, 36, and Pete Finney, 36, had taken off from Brown Field in a different plane, minutes behind the doomed jet.

Regarded as the premier female vocalist in country music today, McEntire, 35, has won a record four-straight Country Music Association awards in her category. She is renowned for her emotion-charged soprano and affecting, socially conscious songs about such difficult subjects as battered wives and illegal aliens. Married in 1989 to second husband Blackstock, McEntire has a son. Shelby, 1.

While planning to make a scheduled appearance at the Academy Awards on Monday, March 25, McEntire has canceled all other appearances through April 4, when she will resume touring with a pickup band. She has set up a fund to aid the victims’ families. In an exclusive interview two days after the crash with PEOPLE correspondent Jane Sanderson at McEntire’s Nashville office, 30 miles from her Gallatin home, the tearful star spoke about the doomed flight, the loss suffered by the families and friends of the victims, and the vagaries of fate.

By far this is my darkest hour, the most awful thing that ever happened in my life. When you have eight people that you absolutely love and their lives are just wiped out—it’s devastating.

When I first heard something had happened, it was 2:30 in the morning, and Narvel and I were in a sound sleep at our hotel in San Diego. Then the phone rings and our pilot says, “Narvel. please come to my room.” And of course Narvel just started jerking on his clothes and his shoes. All he said was, “I think there’s been an accident. Just go to sleep and I’ll be back.”

Of course I couldn’t go back to sleep. Then Narvel came back and said one of the planes had gone down. It was a nightmare from then on. Yet there were hopes, prayers that there might be survivors.

Eventually we radioed the second plane [carrying crewmen and band members McGlohon and Finney]. All the guys got off the plane during a refueling stop in Memphis and were told the other plane had gone down.

The guys just lost it. They didn’t want to get back on the plane. Some of them cried, some clammed up, wouldn’t talk. Finally the pilot talked them into getting back on the plane to go home to Nashville, to help the ones that are still alive.

We had to wait and wait, and it rained all day, and I had all kinds of visions about them going down in the mountains. I kept waiting for a call from Memphis saying, ‘The Hawker’s here.” That one little shred of hope was always there.

It was just the longest morning I ever spent in my life. But from the minute we had an inkling of who all was on the plane, Narvel had to start calling the families. We wanted to tell them first before they got it over the airwaves. That was the hardest thing I’m sure that Narvel ever had to do in his life, because how do you say that? How do you tell a daddy that maybe his boy’s dead? How do you tell a wife her husband may not be coming home or a husband that his wife might not be up there singing any more?

I was so numb that Saturday night when we flew back to Nashville. First we went home to see Shelby and then straight to see Debbie Hammon, Jim’s wife, and their two boys.

We were wondering what to do. I was wanting to cancel everything until July. I said, “I’m just not going to go back out there. It’s too much, I can’t do it without them.” I told Debbie I had to make a decision. And she looked at me, just like Jim would have done, and said, ‘Are you thinking about quitting?’ ”

I said, “Well, no, but I don’t know when I can go back.” And she said, “Jim Hammon worked all this time to help get you where you are today. He’d kick your butt if you thought about quitting.” And I hugged her neck and said, “I needed that, you’re right.” I know Jim would tell me, “Now, Reba, you know those fans expect that out of you, and you can’t quit; you’ve worked too hard and too long, and you’ve got to get back up there.”

I’ve got a very good calm that Jim wants me to go back out there. I know Kirk and Joey and Terry and Tony and Chris and Michael and Paula Kaye, they’d want me to, too. So my first time to perform again is on the Academy Awards, and I’m going to sing a song called “I’m Checkin’ Out” from Postcards from the Edge. I’m going to do it for the band. They’re checking out. They’ve got a new place to dwell.

All of them were special. They were all family-oriented, had high morals; they weren’t a bunch of party people. Paula Kaye was spunky, vivacious, mischievous. Her husband, Larry Wallace, is my production engineer. He had gone on ahead to Fort Wayne. He told Narvel to tell me that Paula Kaye’s dream was to sing with Reba McEntire, and this was the happiest he’d ever known her to be. She went out happy and doing what she wanted to do.

Michael Thomas was the only guitar player I ever had who, when he’d play a lead, he’d look at me and I’d walk toward him. We played off each other so well.

Chris Austin was so young and so talented, a great songwriter. Joey Cigainero was always in a good mood. He never had a bad thing to say about anybody. And I never saw Tony Saputo or Terry Jackson upset either, for that matter.

And Jim Hammon, my tour manager, was so protective. He always walked me to the stage and took me from the stage. We’ll never replace him.

I was really thrilled and flattered to have such a group. It’s hard on the ones left behind, Joe McGlohon, my saxophonist, and Pete Finney, my steel guitar player. I’ve talked to them and told them what Waylon Jennings [who was on tour with Buddy Holly when he died—see page 32] called and told me: “Don’t let guilt set in, don’t let guilt even touch you.”

It is so neat how Nashville has responded. Someone said a radio station in Oklahoma City called and said that Vince Gill and the Judds had played there and had sung tribute songs to me and Jim. And Larry Gatlin called and Ricky Skaggs and so many others. There’s a lot of love in this music business.

I remember a strange thing happened that night in San Diego. In the contract, audience members were not supposed to tape the show, but after the concert Narvel heard my voice singing “Sunday Kind of Love.” He realized somebody had taped it. Jim ran out to see about it and came back with the tape, saying they apologized for making it. Jim handed the tape to Narvel, and I started to ask why, because Jim always took care of that stuff. But I didn’t say a word. So the tape was with Narvel instead of Jim, and now we have the tape of the last show they played with me.

Evidently, I was meant not to go on that plane and God has other things for me to do. Maybe it’s because of our baby, Shelby. Maybe that’s why Joe McGlohon wasn’t on that plane either; his wife just had a baby. And Pete Finney, who was supposed to be on that plane. He switched with Michael Thomas at the last minute, and Michael died in the airplane crash and Pete is here with us today. There are reasons.

I can sleep now because I have some peace. I’ll keep on flying. I’m not going to quit because there are too many opportunities that I have open to me. Staying busy is the best thing for all of us, and knowing that the families want us to go on because they know their family members in the band would want us to. I’ve got a real good calm about me now.

I sang “Sweet Dreams” in San Diego, but that might be the last time I sing it. When Vince Gill called me, I said, “Vince, I’m not ever going to turn around onstage again that they’re going to be there. How am I going to turn around and see that they’re gone?” It’ll never be the same without my family. I’ll have a new family, and I’ll accept them and love them. But those people will be very special in my heart forever.