The plane made it only about a mile from Savannah/Hilton Head International Airport before it nose-dived toward a state highway intersection and exploded into a ball of fire and black smoke, which could be seen across the northern suburbs of the city.
Officials identified the victims on Thursday — all airmen from Puerto Rico, where the plane had been based.
The Associated Press named the dead as follows:
The plane’s pilot, Maj. Jose R. Roman Rosado, from Manati. He had a wife and two sons.
The co-pilot, 1st Lt. David Albandoz, a Puerto Rico native who had recently been living in Madison, Ala. He had a wife and daughter.
The navigator, Maj. Carlos Perez Serra, from Canovanas, who had a wife, two sons and a daughter.
Senior Master Sgt. Jan Paravisini, also from Canovanas. He had two daughters and son and was a mechanic in the Guard.
Master Sgt. Jean Audriffred, from the city of Carolina. He had a wife and two sons.
Master Sgt. Mario Brana, a flight engineer from Bayamon. He had a daughter.
Master Sgt. Eric Circuns, a loadmaster from Rio Grande. He left a wife, two stepdaughters and son.
Master Sgt. Victor Colon of Santa Isabel, who had a wife and two daughters.
Senior Airman Roberto Espada, from Salinas, who the National Guard said is survived by his grandmother.
This is only the latest tragedy for the small U.S. island, which was blasted by twin hurricanes last fall. The Muñiz Air National Guard base was heavily damaged, and tens of thousands on the island still have no electricity.
“The Puerto Rico Air National Guard and the whole Puerto Rico community has been through quite a lot over the last few months,” Col. Pete Boone, a spokesman for Georgia’s Air National Guard, said at a news conference in front of the crash site on Thursday.
Boone said the military had only begun to investigate the cause of the crash — including whether it could be related to maintenance performed on the plane shortly before it took off, or the craft’s age.
He said the C-130 was built in the late 1970s and had been in Georgia for routine maintenance. This contradicted Boone’s counterpart in Puerto Rico — an adjutant general who had said the plane was more than 60 years old and that Wednesday’s flight was supposed to be its last before retirement.
Isabelo Rivera, the adjutant general of Puerto Rico’s National Guard, described the island’s air fleet as old and in disrepair on Wednesday. Of the unit’s six C-130-type planes, he said, two were inoperable and the one destroyed Wednesday had been scheduled for retirement in Arizona.
“The planes that we have in Puerto Rico — it’s not news today that they are the oldest planes on [National Guard] inventory,” Rivera told the Associated Press after the crash.
“This pains us,” he added.
Whatever its exact age, the destroyed C-130 had been used to rescue Americans stranded in the British Virgin Islands after Hurricane Irma hit the Caribbean late last year, the AP reported.
Days later, Hurricane Maria slammed into the 156th Airlift Wing’s home base in Puerto Rico, and the plane subsequently transported supplies from the U.S. mainland to the ruined island.
All nine crew members killed Wednesday had helped with the hurricane recovery effort, the AP wrote, even as the 156th struggled to rebuild 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.
Now his unit will mourn again.
Chelsea Sinclair, who works at a store near the crash site, told the Island Packet newspaper that the plane went down nose-first and shook the building. 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 nose-dived, 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.