SAVANNAH, Ga. — Moments after a military cargo plane crashed into a Georgia highway, rattled motorists began dialing 911 to report the large aircraft plunged nose-first into the blacktop before erupting into flames and thick smoke.
“It just fell out of the sky and it’s on fire right now,” said one woman who called emergency operators as soon as the plane went down at about 11:27 a.m. Wednesday.
Savannah police released 911 recordings from the crash Monday, five days after the C-130 Hercules cargo plane plummeted down onto Georgia Highway 21. It crashed shortly after taking off from the Savannah airport. Nine airmen from the Puerto Rico Air National Guard perished, but no one else was injured on the ground.
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One 911 caller reported something seemed to be wrong with one of the plane’s four engines.
“I saw it take off from the airport and I noticed that one of the propellers wasn’t turning,” the woman told a 911 operator. “And he banked like he was going toward (Interstate) 95, and then all of a sudden he lost altitude and just took a nose dive into the ground.”
The military is investigating. So far, investigators have released no preliminary findings to suggest what caused the crash.
An Air Force spokesman, Maj. Andrew Reed, declined to comment Monday on any details from the 911 calls, citing the active investigation.
Other witnesses gave similar eyewitness accounts.
“It just literally nose-dived into the road,” said one 911 caller.
“He did a barrel roll and went straight into the ground,” said another.
A woman who described black smoke bellowing from the crash tried to get a closer look so she could give emergency dispatchers a better idea of exactly where the plane hit.
“I’m coming up on it,” the woman says. “It’s right off the railroad track. Oh my God, it’s on Highway 21... It’s across both lanes of road.”
“Is it on fire or anything like that?” the operator asks.
“Yes, baby, it’s black smoke,” the caller replies. “The plane like incinerated whenever it hit the concrete.”
Only the tail section of the plane remained intact following the crash. Authorities said the impact scattered debris over an area roughly 600 feet (183 meters) in diameter.
“I’ve got flames and smoke everywhere and stuff coming out of the sky,” one man told a 911 operator.
Amid the latest spike in aviation deaths, a newly published Military Times Crash Database shows manned warplane accidents have jumped 39 percent since the 2013 budget cuts.
The aging plane had long been a part of Puerto Rico’s Air National Guard fleet and had rescued and resupplied U.S. citizens after last year’s hurricanes. It crashed during what was supposed to be its final flight.
The plane was being flown into retirement in Arizona when it took off from Savannah/ Hilton Head International Airport last week. Maj. Paul Dahlen of the Puerto Rico Air National Guard said the aircraft had been manufactured in 1970s, making it roughly 40 years old.
AP reporter Jeff Martin in Atlanta contributed to this story.