9 reported dead in C-130 plane crash near Savannah

Sheriff's Office tells Associated Press it has no knowledge of survivors

PORT WENTWORTH, Ga. – Authorities said that to their knowledge there are no survivors after a cargo plane carrying nine members of the Puerto Rican Air National Guard crashed on the outskirts of Savannah, Georgia, shortly after taking off.

The crew was flying the C-130 into retirement Wednesday when it crashed about 11:30 a.m. at the intersection of Highway 21 at Crossgate Road in the Savannah suburb of Port Wentworth, near the Savannah Hilton Head International Airport.

According to the Air Force, the Air National Guard C-130 "Hercules" cargo plane belonged to the 156th Air Wing out of Puerto Rico.

A sheriff's spokeswoman, Gena Bilbo, for Georgia's Effingham County said that "miraculously" the plane didn't hit any cars or homes. Bilbo told The Associated Press, "To our knowledge there are no survivors."

Debris and materials spanned 600 feet. The huge plane's fuselage appeared to have struck the median, and pieces of its wings were scattered across lanes in both directions. Authorities said the only part of the plane left intact was a tail section.

CNN reports the plane had been in Savannah for "a number of days" undergoing routine maintenance.

Isabelo Rivera, adjutant general of the Puerto Rico National Guard, said the cargo plane that crashed in Georgia was more than 60 years old and was making its final flight into retirement in Arizona, according to The Associated Press.

A spokesperson for the National Guard confirmed five people were killed, but the military backed off that report during a news conference at 3:15 p.m. Wednesday and would not confirm the number of deaths. The AP later reported nine people died and there were no survivors.

IMAGES: C-130 plane crashes near Savannah airport

Surveillance video taken during the plane crash shows the plane in a nose dive and then spinning.

News4Jax aviation analyst Ed Booth was in contact with the Savannah Hilton Head International Airport. He said C-130 airplanes in the area have been flying combat maneuvers with aggressive banks and tight turns this week.

Booth said it's too early to say if the maneuvers are to blame for the crash.

Port Wentworth Mayor Gary Norton, who spoke with News4Jax, called the plane crash heartbreaking.

"My neighbor asked me what was going on and I had problems telling her because I was crying," Norton said. "I hope that everybody will pray for these people and their families."

Highway 21 was shut down and is expected to be partially closed for weeks to evaluate damage done to the road, according to the Effingham County Sheriff's Office. No cars are believed to have been involved in the crash.

Trains will not be running along a railroad in the area, as the track was damaged in the crash. No trains were involved, according to the Sheriff's Office.

"Had this gone down a couple hundred feet north or south, it might have hit traffic or any of these businesses around here," said Port Wentworth Police Chief Matt Libby.

Local authorities said the tragedy will not only affect traffic for people in Savannah and Port Wentworth, but also residents of Chatham and Effingham counties.

"It's going to affect our children getting to and from school," Libby said. "So I'm asking drivers to make alternate plans. Plan ahead and give yourself time and not be distracted and be patient."

Once the debris has been picked up, officials said, a construction crew will have to resurface the heavily damaged roadway.

When President Trump learned of the tragedy he offered words of support to the families of those aboard the plane on Twitter.

The C-130 has been around for 55 years. The durable plane has four engines and is used by militaries around the world. 

Military officials will be investigating the crash.

Witnesses describe plane going down

Eyewitnesses who saw the military cargo plane go down in Port Wentworth described the explosion that followed.

"It was a huge ball of fire and it was loud and it shook my car. It was scary. I've never seen anything like that in my life and I don't like seeing stuff like that," said James Lavine, who was driving home from work when witnessed the crash. "It's playing over and over in my head."

The plane crashed onto Highway 21 moments after taking off from the Savannah/Hilton Head International Airport, narrowly missing people on the ground and sending an orange and black fireball into the sky.

"It had just taken off. It looked like it was taking a turn and the nose of the plane went up in the air and it just starting coming down," Lavine said. "Just slammed in the middle of Highway 21.”

Lavine and another witness both said it appeared the plane may have gone into a stall before it crashed.

“The C-130 came flying over our head pretty low. He barely missed the top of the tree line that’s just how low he was. He seemed to me like he was trying to gain altitude. Maybe the plane stalled out," said witness Roger Best, who was a quarter mile of a mile away from the crash. "In the last second, you see he tried to make a hard banking left hand turn and that didn’t work. The plane nosed dive straight into the ground.”

Witnesses said the explosion was so big that the shock wave shook everything nearby.

"It shook my truck," Best said. "I've never seen anything like that and I wish I hadn't saw it."

Right after the crash, Lavine said, he and several others got closer to see if there were any survivors. 

“We all ran over there and were yelling, ‘Is anyone alive? Anybody out there?’ We (were) just trying to see if we could help someone and see if anyone survived," Lavine said. "We didn’t see anybody.”

About the Authors:

Lifetime Jacksonville resident anchors the 8 and 9 a.m. weekday newscasts and is part of the News4Jax I-Team.

Award-winning broadcast and multimedia journalist with 20 years experience.