Three women described "as a true asset to the community" who were returning home to eastern Kentucky from a Southern excursion were killed along with the pilot when a twin-engine plane crashed in the North Carolina mountains, authorities said Friday.
Right before the crash, the pilot Matthew Shuey, 27, of Nicholasville in central Kentucky, reported a fire on board. The plane, on its way from Georgia to Hazard, then crashed Wednesday some 125 miles west of Asheville.
The passengers from Knott County were Tiffany Maggard, 23; Kassie Robinson, 22; and Miranda Morgan, 20.
"They were just beautiful young ladies that were a true asset to the community," said Knott County Judge-Executive Randy Thompson. "People in the county are devastated by this loss because they are role-model citizens that we've lost."
The women had traveled to Alabama for a weeklong trip that included visiting a friend, said Morgan's cousin, Amy Campbell.
National Transportation Safety Board spokesman Peter Knudson said Friday that the pilot had communicated with air traffic controllers in Tennessee at about 4:12 p.m. EDT Wednesday, about a half-hour into the flight while cruising at an altitude of 9,000 feet.
About 30 seconds later, the pilot contacted them again to declare an emergency, indicating there was a fire without specifying its location, Knudson told reporters. That was his last radio transmission.
Authorities in Cherokee County, N.C., were notified of the crash minutes later in a mountainous, wooded area.
"One witness reported seeing the aircraft about 1,500 feet above the ground .... in level flight before it rolled to the right and then went almost straight down," Knudson said during a conference call.
Federal investigators remained on the scene of the crash that caused a fire that burned about 5 acres.
The NTSB dispatched a fire specialist to the scene to help determine which fragments of the wreckage were damaged by fire and heat before the crash, Knudson said.
"We have some important pieces of information but there's a great deal left to fill in," he said.
In newly released 911 calls, someone living near the crash site reported that the explosion sounded "like a sonic boom," according to WKYT-TV in Lexington. The woman didn't witness the crash but saw smoke and fire, according to the transcript.
The plane was registered to Aero Resources Corp. of Hazard. The company did not return a phone call Friday seeking comment.
In Kentucky, family and friends of those killed were dealing with the shock of losing loved ones in the prime of life.
Shuey was top-notch pilot, said Charles Monette, a former employer who runs a flight school in Lexington.
Monette, president of Aero-Tech Inc., said Shuey was "the kind of pilot that every pilot would want to be, and the kind of person every parent wished they raised."
Shuey was a flight instructor at Aero-Tech for about a year and a half before becoming a charter pilot in Hazard, Monette said.
Robinson was a biology major who recently graduated from Alice Lloyd College in Pippa Passes, Ky., said her grandmother, Dorothy Robinson. Her granddaughter, a high school cheerleader, aspired to become a physical therapist and was looking at schools, she said.
"She loved life and everything about it," Dorothy Robinson said.
Morgan had just finished her sophomore year at Alice Lloyd, where she was an elementary education major, Campbell said. She had planned to tutor children this summer at a learning center in the Appalachian county.
Morgan was a high school homecoming queen, a standout student and a cheerleader in high school and college, her cousin said.
"She was just perfect," Campbell said.
Maggard had married last year and was living in Leslie County, where she was studying physical therapy, said her aunt, Sandra Slone.
"She was always smiling," Slone said. "If you knew her, you had to love her. She was just a sweet person."
Alice Lloyd College said Maggard had also attended school there but transferred to pursue a degree in physical therapy. The college said in a statement that it planned to reach out to family members to organize a memorial service.
"The entire campus is mourning the loss of these three outstanding young women," the school's statement said.