The C-130 Hercules is like the ancient elephant of the modern Air Force — huge, strong and put to almost endless uses. Since the 1950s, the planes have hauled massive cargo loads to war zones, been converted into gunships and bombers, and been packed with electronics to hunt for hurricanes.

And like the old war elephants, when a C-130 falls, it goes down hard.

In 2002, both wings ripped off a tanker-modified Hercules as it doused wildfires in California, sending the fuselage spinning like a missile into the trees, killing three people.

On Wednesday, a Hercules crashed onto a state highway in Georgia, killing all nine people on board and leaving witnesses on the ground hardly able to believe what they had seen.

The plane — which in its long history has served as a weather reconnaissance craft and a rescue vehicle for stranded hurricane victims — took off about 11:30 a.m. Wednesday from an airport in Savannah. On board were nine Air National Guard members from the C-130’s home base in Puerto Rico, bound for Arizona.

The purpose of the trip was unclear. Military officials first said that the plane was on a training mission, and then that it was due to be decommissioned in Arizona, and then that the details were unknown.

In any case, the plane had barely cleared the runway at Savannah/Hilton Head International Airport before something went catastrophically wrong.

Michael Garrett told WXIA-TV that he had just eaten lunch at a Circle K near the airport and was walking back to his big rig, chatting with a friend on the phone, when he looked up and saw what looked to him like a big gray “Army plane.”

“It was gliding slowly to the side,” he told the station. “I’m looking at it, staring at it, telling my friend this plane looks kind of strange. It slowly [glided] to the left and just went all the way upside down.”

“All the way upside down,” he repeated. “I was telling everyone in the parking lot: ‘Look, a plane is falling. A plane is falling.’ ”

A few miles south of the airport, CNN reported, Roger Best felt the ground rumble beneath his truck as the plane passed low overhead. Others would see the C-130 appear to make a hard left turn. It seemed to Best as if the pilot tried to veer away from the crowded north Savannah suburbs — in which case he thinks the pilot saved his life and many others.

“He barely made it over the tree line,” Best said.

The plane headed toward the normally busy intersection of State Highway 21 and Crossgate Road, where a county sheriff’s spokeswoman would later say “an absolute miracle” prevented it from striking any cars.

Near that same intersection, Mark Jones looked up and saw the C-130 curving low over the trees, toward the street. “But I see them all the time, so I didn’t think anything of it,” he told the Savannah Morning News. Jones looked down for a moment, he said, and by the time he looked back up, the plane was on the ground.

A security camera at a truck yard several blocks away captured the plane’s final descent.

The Hercules glided toward the highway intersection, falling slowly at first. Then its wings — 132 feet from tip to tip — began to spin around its axis like a weather vane. The plane’s pitch became steeper and steeper, until finally its nose pointed directly toward the ground; it disappeared from the camera’s view behind a row of trees.

Five seconds later, the camera video showed, a pillar of fire and black smoke rose from those same trees, spewing into the blue, cloudless sky.

Power, phone and Internet service went out in the surrounding neighborhoods, the Morning News reported. Lights flickered, and buildings shook across the northern suburbs of Savannah.

From the Circle K parking lot, Garrett said, he heard no sound but saw flames on the horizon and hoped no one had been hurt.

At a wrecking yard down the street from the crash site, Denver Goodwin told CNN that the ground shook “like a bomb” and that people around him began to panic.

Directly in front of the crash site, in the middle of the state highway, a driver held his phone up to his windshield and made a video. “A C-130 literally just dropped out of the sky and blew up on the street,” he said as cross-street traffic passed in front of the dark smoke.

Debris scattered hundreds of feet from the point of impact, a county spokeswoman told the Morning News. Jet fuel started small fires along the side of the road that firefighters later smothered in a white sea of foam.

As the smoke cleared and the bodies were counted, officials cleared witnesses away from the crash site. They blockaded the highway, warning that it was likely to stay closed for weeks as the military investigates what went wrong.

In aerial photos, only the tail of the Hercules appears intact, a U.S. flag symbol clearly visible at the tip. The tail lies exactly in the middle of the highway, aligned almost perfectly with the lane lines — as if it had landed there and the rest of the plane had simply melted away.

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