As many as 9 feared dead as Puerto Rico Air National Guard plane crashes in Georgia

A Puerto Rico Air National Guard cargo plane crashed near Savannah, Ga., on Wednesday. (Savannah Professional Firefighters Assn.)

As many as nine people are believed dead after a Puerto Rico Air National Guard plane crashed and burst into flames Wednesday on a busy highway just a few miles from a Georgia airport.

Capt. Jeff Bezore, a spokesman for the Georgia Air National Guard's 165th Airlift Wing, said five bodies had been recovered from the Lockheed C-130 Hercules. He could not confirm how many people were on the aircraft, but Puerto Rican authorities told the Associated Press that nine people were aboard.

The four-engine turboprop military transport aircraft went down about 11:30 a.m. Eastern time, just a few miles northeast of Savannah/Hilton Head International Airport, between Georgia Highway 21 and Crossgate Road, according to the Chatham Emergency Management Agency in Savannah.

Video footage captured by a local business' surveillance camera appeared to show the aircraft descend and suddenly take an abrupt nosedive. A few seconds later, a tower of flames and thick, dark smoke shoot up into the blue sky.

Several hours after the plane crashed, emergency crews began recovering bodies from the wreckage, but it was still too hot to mount a full search, said William Wessinger, the coroner for Chatham County.

"I am sitting here in a chair about 200 yards from the burning embers and they've slowly died out," Wessinger said in a telephone interview as emergency crews sprayed water and foam on the aircraft. "The Air Force can't recover the bodies or move them out amongst the burning aluminum and charred metal. As soon as that cools down, the recovery team will go in."

The possibility of survivors, he added, was "pretty low."

It was unclear whether anyone on the ground was affected.

"As far as we know, there were no cars hit in this crash," Effingham County sheriff's spokeswoman Gena Bilbo said during an afternoon news briefing. "It is an absolute miracle at that time of day and at that intersection."

The section of highway where the aircraft crashed, she said, could be closed for weeks as agencies scour the wreckage site.

Senior Master Sgt. Roger Parsons of the 165th Airlift Wing said at the briefing that an interim safety board was securing the crash scene and a mortuary team was traveling from Charleston, S.C., to work with the casualties.

"Our thoughts and prayers go out to our brothers and sisters at the Puerto Rico Air National Guard," he said. "This is never a fun time. We are here to support them."

"We are dismayed by the airplane accident that occurred today in Georgia," Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rossello said on Twitter. "Our prayers are with the families of the Puerto Rican crew."

In a statement, the National Guard said the cargo plane crashed while performing a training mission. Personnel are on the scene and a board of officers will investigate the crash, it added.

A photo posted on Twitter by the Savannah Professional Firefighters Assn. showed the tail end of the aircraft on a grassy median alongside a highway, engulfed in flames and obscured by plumes of black smoke.

Last year, the Air National Guard designated Savannah as the hub of operations to Puerto Rico after hurricanes Irma and Maria wreaked widespread damage across the U.S. territory, flattening homes and cutting off power to residents across the island.

Roger Best, who drives jockey trucks at a hazardous materials worksite about a quarter of a mile from the crash, wrote in a Facebook message that he saw the aircraft fly just above him before it crashed. The pilot, he said, managed to avert an even bigger disaster by avoiding his workplace.

"The guy is a hero," he said of the pilot, noting he barely made it over the tree line. "It honestly look[ed] like he was trying to avoid hitting us cuz if he did this area is a giant bomb and this whole 5 Mi radius would have blown up."

4:45 p.m.: The article was updated with reports that as many as nine people were aboard the cargo plane.

2:40 p.m.: The article was updated with additional reaction and further details.

11:50 p.m.: The article was updated with the death toll rising to five.

11 a.m.: The article was updated with Los Angeles Times staff reporting and additional details.

The article was originally published at 9:20 a.m.