A Puerto Rico Air National Guard plane crashed in Savannah, Ga. shortly after takeoff on Wednesday, killing nine people aboard the aging aircraft headed toward its retirement.
The plane, a WC-130 weather reconnaissance and cargo plane from Puerto Rico’s 156th Airlift Wing, has been in Savannah for maintenance and was bound for Davis-Monthan Air Force Base in Arizona to be decommissioned. Maj. Paul Dahlen of the Puerto Rico National Guard told CNN that five crew members and four passengers were aboard.
An Air Force spokeswoman said the aircraft crashed at about 11:30 a.m., exploding into black smoke and flames beside a road near the Savannah/Hilton Head International Airport. Isabelo Rivera, Adjutant General of Puerto Rico’s National Guard, told the Associated Press that it’s too early to say what caused the accident. The military is investigating, the Air Force said in a statement, and the names of the dead will be released once their next of kin are told.
“This pains us,” Rivera said. “Most of [the families] already know and have come to the base.”
CBS reported that the plane was one of the oldest C-130s still flying, at more than 60 years old. Rivera said two of the five like it in the Puerto Rico National Guard are out of use because they need maintenance.
“The planes that we have in Puerto Rico — it’s not news today that they are the oldest planes on inventory,” Rivera said.
The WC-130 — a modified version of the “Hercules” — is commonly called a “hurricane hunter.” Two such planes were deployed by the 156th Airlift Wing last September to help rescue more than 1,000 Americans from Caribbean islands during Hurricane Irma, according to the Air National Guard.
Days later, Hurricane Maria slammed into Puerto Rico, devastating much of the island — including, reportedly, the 156th itself.
“Our wing was devastated by two back-to-back Category-4 hurricanes that hit Puerto Rico, and we’re still in that process continuing to work with higher-level command to get us through the recovery phases and rebuild the wing,” Col. Raymond Figueroa, wing commander of the 156th, said in a military news release last month.
At the time, Georgia’s Air National Guard was working with its counterpart in Puerto Rico to repair communication equipment at Muñiz Air National Guard Base, which was heavily damaged by the hurricanes.
The plane crashed at the intersection of two roads, but nobody on the ground was killed, officials said.
“As far we know there were no cars hit in this crash, it is an absolute miracle at that time or day and that intersection,” a spokesman for Effingham County Sheriff’s Office said during a news conference, according to ABC News.
Chelsea Sinclair, who works at a nearby store, told the Island Packet that the plane went down nose-first and shook the establishment. Mark Jones, speaking to the Savannah Morning News, said he was in his car when the plane hit the road 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. “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.
Scott Cohen tweeted what he said was footage of the crash from his business’s surveillance cameras. In it, the plane appears to lose altitude quickly and twirl into the ground.
“We are saddened by the tragic news of an Air National Guard C-130 crash earlier today,” the Air Force tweeted. “Our thoughts and prayers are with the family, friends and Airmen close to those affected by this event.”