Unadilla, Ga. — A plane carrying members of a National Guard engineering crew crashed and burst into flames in a farm field in heavy rain Saturday, killing all 21 people on board, officials said.
Three Army personnel and 18 Air National Guard members were aboard the twin-engine C-23 Sherpa that crashed near Unadilla, about 30 miles south of Macon, said John Birdsong, a spokesman for Robins Air Force Base.
A spokeswoman for the Virginia Air National Guard said all 18 of the transport plane's passengers were members of a Virginia-based military construction and engineering crew on a routine training mission.
The plane's pilot and two other crew members were members of the 171st Aviation Battalion of the Florida Army National Guard, officials said.
Identities of the victims were not immediately released.
John Allen Bryant Sr., 57, heard the crash in a field on his farm, about 2 miles from his house. He rushed to the site.
"It was just a horrible, horrible scene," Bryant said in a telephone interview. "The plane was just about completely gone. There was very little of its stuff left. It just about all had burned up. It was just awful."
Dennis Posey, a farmer who lives about a half-mile from the field, said he jumped into his pickup and headed to the crash site after hearing a loud thud. The plane exploded only moments after it landed, Posey said.
"There was no way" anyone survived, Posey said. "As soon as I seen that plane, I knew nobody could come out of that."
Posey said his father, D.E. Posey, was one of the first people to arrive at the scene and saw several pieces fall off the plane as it descended.
"There was a wing off it and a part of the tail section," he said. "Matter of fact, a wing, probably 20 feet of it, was on a piece of my farm."
Mike Bryant, who also lives nearby, said he could tell the plane was in trouble when he heard it pass overhead.
"I turned around and I saw it just fall to the ground. It exploded. It wasn't on fire until it hit the ground. Then it exploded and burst into flames," said Bryant, who is not related to John Bryant Sr.
Searching for cause
Officials have not determined the cause of the 11 a.m. crash. Heavy rains and winds swept the area throughout Friday night and Saturday as part of a huge storm system moving across the South.
The plane was assigned to the Florida National Guard's 171st Aviation Battalion and based at Lakeland, Fla. It had taken off at 9:57 a.m. from Hurlburt Field near Fort Walton Beach and was headed to Oceana Naval Air Station, Va. No trouble was reported then, said Air Force Capt. Carol Kanode, a field spokeswoman.
Kathleen Bergen, a spokeswoman for the Federal Aviation Administration, said the pilot had filed a flight plan with the agency and would have had regular contact with FAA air traffic controllers along the route.
She did not know whether the C-23 pilot had contacted controllers about a flight problem.
The National Transportation Safety Board is sending investigators to the scene and the military will convene a board of officers to investigate the accident, Robins spokeswoman Faye Willson said late Saturday. The Army Safety Center at Fort Rucker, Ala. also has sent investigators.
The victims' remains would not be removed before today, she said.
Red Horse unit
Late Saturday afternoon, families of the 18 Virginia-based victims all members of the 203rd Red Horse Unit of the National Guard gathered at Camp Pendleton State Military Reservation in Virginia Beach.
"It's painful," said Lt. Col. Chester Carter, who traveled to Camp Pendleton, home of the 203rd, with Maj. Gen. Claude A. Williams, the state's adjutant general, immediately after receiving word of the crash.
"The families are our main focus and concern right now," Carter said.
Lt. Col. Charles Smith, senior chaplain for the Virginia Air National Guard, was one of seven clergy on scene to console families.
"They're grieving, they're hurting," Smith said. "We're a family and part of that family was taken away from us today."
Families of seven of the squadron members met with the chaplains for most of the afternoon. The Virginia National Guard also set up a number for families to call for information and have been trying to contact families personally.
The Red Horse squadrons are rapidly deployable civil engineering units that can erect tent cities and other facilities for troops in the field.
"They have plumbers, electricians, cooks," Kanode said. "They have everything you need to set up from nothing."
Virginia Gov. Jim Gilmore ordered state flags to be lowered to half-staff.
"A tragedy such as this reminds us that our men and women in the military are always in danger," he said.
President Bush said he was deeply saddened at news of the crash.
"This tragic loss on a routine training mission reminds us of the sacrifices made each and every day by all of our men and women in uniform," Bush said in a statement. "The price of freedom is never free. Today's events remind us that it is sometimes unspeakably high."
Gov. Jeb Bush of Florida, where the three crew members were based, said: "These are people who volunteer, who serve their state and their country out of love so it makes their loss more poignant."
In a joint statement, the Army and Air Force said each branch was deeply saddened by the crash.
"The senior Army leadership and the senior Air Force leadership, on behalf of their services, extend their heartfelt sympathy and condolences to the families and friends who lost loved ones in this tragedy," the statement said.
The C-23 Sherpa aircraft can carry up to 30 passengers and provides troop and equipment transport, airdrop and medical evacuation.
Before Saturday's crash, the deadliest military aviation accident in Georgia occurred in 1986 at Fort Stewart when two Army helicopters collided, killing eight soldiers.