PORT WENTWORTH, Ga. -- A crew of nine Puerto Ricans were flying an Air National Guard WC-130 into retirement in Arizona when it crashed onto a highway in Georgia on Wednesday, and authorities said there appeared to be no survivors.
The plane crashed onto state 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 miraculously did not hit any cars, any homes," Effingham County Sheriff's spokeswoman Gena Bilbo said. "This is a very busy roadway."
The huge plane's fuselage appeared to have struck the median, and pieces of its wings, which spanned 132 feet (40 meters), were scattered across lanes in both directions. The only part still intact was the tail section, said Chris Hanks, a spokesman for the Savannah Professional Firefighters Association.
The WC-130, an older, modified version of the C-130 Hercules, is used by the Air Force for a specialized "Hurricane Hunters" mission in which the aircraft provide reconnaissance on major storm systems. While most of the aircraft are assigned to Keesler Air Force Base, Mississippi, some were transferred to the 156th Airlift Wing when Keesler received new WC-130J models.
The plane was more than 60 years old, said Isabelo Rivera, Adjutant General of Puerto Rico's National Guard. Belonging to the 156th Air Wing, it was used to rescue U.S. citizens stranded in the British Virgin Islands following Hurricane Irma and ferry supplies to the U.S. territory of Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria last year.
"The planes that we have in Puerto Rico -- it's not news today that they are the oldest planes on inventory," Rivera said. Puerto Rico's National Guard has five other similar planes, two of which are not in use because they require maintenance, he said.
It's too early to say what might have caused the accident, he said. The plane last received maintenance at the base in Savannah in April.
All nine crew members had helped with hurricane recovery efforts, Rivera said.
An official in Georgia, speaking to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity, said it appears no one on board survived. The official spoke on condition of not being identified, saying he wasn't authorized to release the death toll.
"This pains us," Rivera said of the deaths. They aren't releasing names until all the families have been contacted, but "most of them already know and have come to the base" on the island, Rivera said.
Motorist Mark Jones told the Savannah Morning News that he saw the plane hit the road right in front of him, about a mile (less than two kilometers) from the airport.
"It didn't look like it nosedived, but it almost looked like it stalled and just went almost flat right there in the middle of the highway," Jones said, describing how people stopped and got out of their cars following the explosion.
"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.
The U.S. territory's Gov. Ricardo Rossello expressed his sadness, tweeting that "our prayers are with the families of the Puerto Rican crew."
President Donald Trump tweeted that he had been briefed on the crash, and sent "thoughts and prayers for the victims, their families and the great men and women of the National Guard."
-- Oriana Pawlyk contributed to this report.
Associated Press writers Danica Coto in San Juan, Puerto Rico, and Jeff Martin in Atlanta have contributed to this report.