A light aircraft smashed into shops and exploded into a “massive fireball” killing all five on board, including four American passengers reportedly golfers on the trip of a lifetime, officials in Australia said Tuesday.
The twin-engined Beechcraft plane veered just after take-off into a shopping centre, that was still closed, next to Essendon Fields airport near Melbourne.
“Five on the aircraft and looks like no one has survived the crash,” said Victoria Police Assistant Commissioner Stephen Leane.
Premier Daniel Andrews described it as “the worst civil aviation accident that our state has seen for 30 years”.
The private charter from Essendon, north of Melbourne, to King Island, 55 minutes to the south, came down just short of a major motorway packed with the heavy traffic of early morning commuters.
Live television footage showed burned out wreckage, flames and major damage at the shopping centre and adjacent buildings.
A column of thick black smoke rose into the air as witnesses spoke of an explosion.
“The pilot unfortunately attempted to return to Essendon but has crashed into the DFO (Direct Factory Outlet) at Essendon Fields,” Leane told reporters.
The centre was not due to open for another hour and the authorities confirmed no one inside was hurt.
A taxi driver called ABC radio and told of the “massive fireball” and a landing wheel bouncing onto the motorway.
“I saw this plane… when it hit the building there was a massive fireball,” said the man called Jason.
“I could feel the heat through the window of the taxi, and then a wheel — it looked like a plane wheel — bounced on the road and hit the front of the taxi as we were driving along.”
Victoria Police Superintendent Mick Frewen said investigations centred on a “catastrophic engine failure”.
The highly experienced 60-year-old Australian pilot made a May-Day call before crashing.
A shopworker called Ash told Sky News he saw “the fireball go up into the air”, adding it “felt like a bomb had gone off”.
“The fire was just so hot we could not get anywhere near it,” he said. “We could see the wreckage, or what was left of it.”
The US embassy in Canberra said the four passengers were American citizens.
“We extend our deepest condolences to the families and loved ones of those who died in today’s tragic crash,” a spokeswoman said.
Melbourne’s Herald Sun identified two of the dead as Greg De Haven, 70, a retired FBI agent and lawyer Russell Munsch, both from Texas, who were travelling with two unnamed friends, the daily said.
Plumber Michael Howard, 29, told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation he saw a “blue flash”.
“I was… just looking out the window… and then all of a sudden I just saw a blue flash come down and then all of a sudden there was a massive fireball.”
“It was like something from a movie,” Howard said.
Melbourne fire brigade chief Paul Stacchino tweeted that “more than 60 firefighters have worked hard to bring the fire… under control. Crews to remain on scene for some time”.
Essendon Fields was closed and all traffic diverted to Melbourne’s two larger airports Tullamarine and Avalon.
© Agence France-Presse