JACKSON, Miss. (AP) — Roger Latham had considered taking a short flight Tuesday night in his small plane with his flying instructor and a couple of other experienced pilots to attend a conference on flight safety held by the Federal Aviation Administration.
At the last minute, he decided to go deer hunting instead.
Shortly after taking off, the single-engine Piper PA-32 began sputtering and crashed into a home in a west Jackson neighborhood, killing all three aboard and injuring a woman inside the home.
Firefighters, police officers and federal investigators were on the scene Wednesday. Some of them held up a large tarp near the back of the coroner's SUV to block the view as they brought body bags out of the house.
Among the victims was Latham's flight instructor, John Edward Tilton Jr., who was a decorated helicopter pilot during the Vietnam War and had served in numerous roles with the Civil Air Patrol, reaching the rank of colonel and serving as a board member at one time. He was 65.
"He was one of the finest Christian men I knew," Latham said at the scene Tuesday night. "We had three great men who lost their lives," he added. "I just want to wake up in a while and say, 'This didn't happen.'"
Latham said his plane had been parked in a hangar for a month and they wanted to take it out for a short flight before he flew it to Gulf Shores, Ala., for Thanksgiving. Latham said he had owned the plane for 2 1/2 years and described it as being in mint condition.
The plane had just taken off from Hawkins Field Airport in Jackson when a witness said a Jackson police officer said it began "spitting and sputtering."
One of the aviators asked for permission to return to the airport, but just minutes later the plane went down. It crashed through trees before slamming into a house that quickly caught fire, sending long flames and black smoke through the neighborhood of modest single-family homes surrounded by magnolia and oak trees.
"I'm sure John was doing everything he possibly could to save the lives on board," Latham said.
The other two men aboard were William C. Young and David Williams, said Carlton Summer, Mississippi wing commander for the Civil Air Patrol. All three victims were certified flight instructors and CAP pilots, though they were not on official business for the flight.
Williams, 69, was a former Air Force F-101 fighter pilot and served in leadership roles with the Civil Air Patrol with the rank of lieutenant colonel.
Young, 78, had joined the Civil Air Patrol in May 2011. He was a major in CAP.
On the ground, Loretta Jamison was home alone while her husband was at work. Her nephew, Milton Miller, said she was in the bedroom getting some clothes together when the plane crashed. She suffered second-degree burns on her hands.
Jamar Funchess, a 20-year-old student at Jackson State University, lives two doors down and said he was a longtime neighbor and good friends with Jamison's son.
He ran outside after hearing a loud crashing noise and saw Jamison trying to climb out of her bedroom window. He ran over, grabbed her and pulled her out. He said she was not screaming or crying and seemed to be in shock.
"I pulled her out," he recalled. "She said 'Oh my god, somebody's screaming for help. She tried to go back, but I stopped her."
Then the fire got stronger and faster. "This happens on TV, not in Jackson, Mississippi," he said.
Funchess said Jamison's son was at a nearby restaurant when he heard a plane crashed into his house. He was so frantic that he ran home and left his car at the restaurant.
Jamison's husband, Roosevelt, was pacing near the home Wednesday and had some dogs loaded into his truck. He said his wife was doing "OK," but declined to answer other questions, saying he was searching for answers himself. His wife was being treated at the University of Mississippi Medical Center.
National Transportation Safety Board investigators arrived at the scene Wednesday. A preliminary report on the crash is expected in 10 days.
Board investigator Paul Cox said someone in the plane reported engine trouble before the crash, but the nature of the problem wasn't clear.