PORT WENTWORTH, Ga. (AP) — An Air National Guard C-130 cargo plane crashed onto a busy highway moments after taking off from an airport in Georgia on Wednesday, narrowly missing people on the ground but killing at least five National Guard members from Puerto Rico.
An orange and black fireball rose into the sky after the plane crashed onto state highway 21, about a mile from the Savannah/Hilton Head International Airport, around 11:30 a.m., authorities said.
The huge plane’s fuselage appeared to have struck the median, and pieces of its 132-foot wingspan were scattered across lanes in both directions. The only part still intact was the tail section, said Chris Hanks, a spokesman for the Savannah Professional Firefighters Association.
“It miraculously did not hit any cars, any homes,” Effingham County Sheriff’s spokeswoman Gena Bilbo said. “This is a very busy roadway.”
Motorist Mark Jones told the Savannah Morning News that he saw the plane hit the ground right in front of him.
“It didn’t look like it nosedived, but it almost looked like it stalled and just went almost flat right there in the middle of the highway,” Jones said, describing how people stopped and got out of their cars following the explosion.
“I’m still shook up and shaking. 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,” Jones said.
At least five people were killed, said Capt. Jeff Bezore, a spokesman for the Georgia Air National Guard’s 165th Air Wing. He said he couldn’t say how many people were on the plane.
The cause of the crash was not immediately clear, and firefighters were still working to make the crash site safe for investigators, said Senior Master Sgt. Roger Parsons of the Georgia Air National Guard.
“Any information about what caused this or any facts about the aircraft will come out in the investigation,” he said.
The Air Force said the plane belonged to the 156th Air Wing out of Puerto Rico, and all aboard were Puerto Ricans on a mission to the U.S. mainland. Puerto Rico National Guard Spokesman Maj. Paul Dahlen told The Associated Press that initial information indicated there were five to nine people aboard the plane, which was heading to Arizona. He did not have details on the mission.
The U.S. territory’s Gov. Ricardo Rossello expressed his sadness, tweeting that “our prayers are with the families of the Puerto Rican crew.”
President Donald Trump tweeted that he had been briefed on the crash, sending “thoughts and prayers for the victims, their families and the great men and women of the National Guard.”
Savannah’s Air National Guard base has been heavily involved in hurricane recovery efforts in Puerto Rico. In September 2017, it was designated by the Air National Guard as the hub of operations to the island in the aftermath of hurricanes Irma and Maria.
The airport said on social media that some flights were being affected, even though the crash happened off its property, and advised passengers to check with airlines for updates.
Associated Press writers Danica Coto in San Juan, Puerto Rico, and Jeff Martin in Atlanta have contributed to this report.