A crew of nine Puerto Ricans were killed Wednesday when a military cargo plane crashed near Savannah/Hilton Head International Airport minutes after takeoff, sending black smoke billowing into the sky, authorities said.
The Arizona-bound C-130 Hercules crashed at an intersection near the airport and part of the plane was on the roadway. It was flown by members of the 156th Air Wing from the Puerto Rico Air National Guard.
Photos and video from near the scene showed the wreckage burning until firefighters doused the blaze.
Most of the tail section appeared to remain intact, surrounded by scorched debris.
First responders spent the day working to contain the flames and searching for survivors.
But nearly eight hours after the crash, Effingham County Sheriff’s spokeswoman Gena Bilbo told the Associated Press “To our knowledge, there are no survivors.”
“It miraculously did not hit any cars, any homes,” Bilbo added. “This is a very busy roadway.”
Bilbo said the crash happened at about 11:30 a.m. ET. The wreckage caused a “huge footprint” and at least one road could be close for weeks, she said. Some schools, businesses and homes in the area lost power, apparently the result of the plane tearing down lines in the crash.
Reports on the number of people on the plane were conflicting throughout the day. Georgia officials initially put the number at five; Puerto Rico officials said five to nine. Master Sgt. Roger Parsons, a spokesman for the Air Force, initially would not speculate on cause of the crash and said it was too soon to provide definitive numbers.
But hours after the crash, details became clear and the nine-member crew did not survive.
The plane was more than 60 years old, said Isabelo Rivera, Adjutant General of Puerto Rico’s National Guard. Belonging to the 156th Air Wing, it was used to rescue U.S. citizens stranded in the British Virgin Islands following Hurricane Irma and ferry supplies to the U.S. territory of Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria last year.
“The planes that we have in Puerto Rico – it’s not news today that they are the oldest planes on inventory” of all National Guard planes nationwide, Rivera said. Puerto Rico’s National Guard has five other similar planes, two of which need maintenance and aren’t being used, he said.
It’s too early to say what might have caused the accident, he said. The plane last received maintenance at the base in Savannah in April.
All nine crew members had helped with hurricane recovery efforts as part of the 198th Fighter Squadron, nicknamed the Bucaneros, which flies out of Base Muniz in the northern coastal city of Carolina, Rivera said.
“This pains us,” Rivera said of the deaths. They aren’t releasing names until all the families have been contacted, but “most of them already know and have come to the base.”
Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rossello tweeted his condolences: “We are saddened by the plane accident that occurred today in Georgia.”
Witness James Lavine said he was driving home from work along Highway 21 when the plane crashed in front of him.
“It was getting ready to take a left bank right in front of me and all of a sudden I see the plane just stalling” before it crashed, he said. “It’s the most terrifying thing I’ve seen.”
Mark Jones described a similar experience, telling the Savannah Morning News he noticed the plane low in the air. Moments later, it exploded upon impact, possibly landing on cars.
“I’m still shook up and shaking,” he said. “My stomach is in knots because I know they’re people just like me. I wasn’t that far from it and I could have just kept going and it would have been me, and we wouldn’t be talking right now.”
The airport said some flights were being affected by the “aircraft incident off property.” In a later tweet the airport said operations had essentially returned to normal.