A twin-engine commuter plane with at least 23 people aboard--among them former Sen. John Tower of Texas, his daughter, Marian, and astronaut Manley S. (Sonny) Carter Jr.--crashed and burned when attempting to land Friday afternoon. There were no survivors.
Officials said that, in addition to the 20 passengers and three crew members aboard the plane, three airline personnel may have hitched a ride but were not included on the flight manifest. Local officials said they had not yet determined how many were killed.
Atlantic Southeast Airlines Flight 2311 was en route from Atlanta to Brunswick when it went down shortly before 3 p.m. in a heavily wooded area about two miles north of the runway at Glynco Airport, according to the Federal Aviation Administration.
The Brazilian-built turboprop had been cleared to land and apparently was making a normal approach when it pitched forward in a steep dive, the FAA said. The plane hit about 100 yards from a cluster of mobile homes, but there were no injuries on the ground.
Firefighters had to clear a path through the woods with bulldozers to reach the plane, which was largely destroyed by the impact and fire.
James Griner, who lives in one of the mobile homes, said he saw the plane plunging nose-first from the sky and ran to the crash site to help, but there was nothing he could do.
"I couldn't get to it because of the fire," he said. "I went completely around the plane, looking for survivors, but I couldn't find a soul."
"All that's left of the plane is the tail and a clump of metal where the cockpit used to be," said Bill Kitchen, a reporter for WMOG radio in Brunswick.
National Transportation Safety Board official Preston Hicks arrived in Brunswick late Friday night and told reporters that an investigative team was due to arrive shortly after midnight and would begin examining the crash site this morning.
He said that the investigation would take from six to nine months and would follow normal routines--probing operations, maintenance, survival factors and, if necessary, air traffic control and weather issues.
Spokesmen for Atlantic Southeast said there had been no indication that the plane was in trouble as it neared the airport.
"The weather was clear," said John Beiser, a senior vice president of the airline. "The airplane was on approach when we received the report that it was down. We had no unusual contact with the pilot."
He said the aircraft was "relatively new" and he had received "no reports of any mechanical problems with the plane."
However, some eyewitnesses living near the crash site told reporters that they saw the plane suddenly enveloped in thick smoke before it veered off and crashed. Hicks cited other witnesses who said that "they heard a loud bang, following which the aircraft nosed over into the ground."
The crash occurred just one day after Sen. John Heinz (R-Pa.) and six other people died in a collision between a light plane and a helicopter near Philadelphia.
Tower, 65, and his 35-year-old daughter had been on their way to Sea Island, Ga., for a party to promote his new book, "Consequences: A Personal Memoir," according to his office in Dallas.
In 1989, President Bush nominated the four-term Republican senator from Texas to be his defense secretary, but allegations of heavy drinking and marital infidelity undermined Tower's political support, and the Senate rejected him in a 53-47 vote. It was the first time in 30 years that a President had been denied a Cabinet choice.
Carter, 43, a Navy captain who flew on a secret military mission aboard the space shuttle Discovery in November, 1989, had been living near Robins Air Force Base in Warner Robins, Ga., with his wife, Dana.
He was a skilled soccer player at Emory University in Atlanta and was the first American drafted by the now-defunct Atlanta Chiefs of the professional American Soccer League. He played for them from 1970 to 1973. After receiving a medical degree, he became a Navy flight surgeon, then a pilot, then a test pilot and, in 1984, an astronaut.
On Jan. 28, 1986, Carter was on duty at the launching pad at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida as the crew of the ill-fated space shuttle Challenger prepared to take off. He was the last person to see them alive before it exploded shortly after liftoff.
The National Aeronautics and Space Administration said Carter had been scheduled to make his second shuttle flight next winter.
In 1985, Atlantic Southeast became the first commercial airline to purchase the Embraer 120 Brasilia commuter turboprop, which can carry 30 passengers up to 1,000 miles nonstop at a cruising speed of about 320 m.p.h.
Because of its speed and range, the plane soon became popular with commuter lines around the world. Atlantic Southeast, which operates under a marketing agreement with Atlanta-based Delta Air Lines, now flies the turboprops to dozens of airports in small- and medium-size cities throughout the South.
Friday's was the first fatal crash for the 11-year-old airline.
A year ago, one of Atlantic Southeast's Embraers collided with a smaller plane over Alabama. Despite tail damage, the Embraer landed at an airport in Gadsden, Ala., and none of the seven people aboard were injured. Two Civil Air Patrol pilots were killed in the smaller plane.
Malnic reported from Los Angeles and Johnston, who flew from Washington to cover this story, reported from Brunswick. Researcher Edith Stanley in Atlanta contributed to the story.