THOMSON, Ga. (AP) — A small private jet carrying a surgeon and members of his clinic staff aborted its landing at a Georgia airport before it hit a 60-foot utility pole and crashed in a flaming wreck, killing five people onboard and injuring two, federal authorities said Thursday.
National Transportation Safety Board member Robert Sumwalt said fuel leaking from the plane ignited in flames Wednesday night after it hit the concrete pole with enough force to sheer off the left wing. He said investigators found pieces of the plane strewn over 100 yards.
"The wreckage was severely fragmented, and it is almost completely destroyed by fire," Sumwalt said at a news conference Thursday afternoon. "...You walk up and you say to yourself, 'Where is the airplane?'"
Investigators don't yet know why the plane aborted its landing at Thomson-McDuffie Regional Airport, a small terminal with a 5,500-foot runway about 30 miles west of Augusta.
Sumwalt said investigators would interview air-traffic controllers to see if the pilots made a distress call and search for a flight-data recorder from the plane that might yield clues. He also said authorities had obtained video from a security camera at the airport but had not yet reviewed it.
The Hawker Beechcraft 390/ Premier I, a small business jet that seats two pilots and six passengers, was carrying five staff members of the Vein Guys clinic of vascular medicine specialists in Augusta, said Dr. Stephen Davis, a plastic surgeon who works for an affiliated Vein Guys clinic in Nashville.
The crash killed Dr. Steven Roth, the vascular surgeon at the Augusta clinic, and two of his co-workers, nurse anesthetist Lisa Volpitto and a secretary, Kim Davidson. Their deaths were confirmed Thursday evening by McDuffie County Coroner Foster Wiley.
Davis said two ultrasound technicians were also aboard the flight. He said Roth regularly flew to Vein Guys clinics in the region, though other doctors working for the clinic did not travel. Davis said his brother, Dr. Keith Davis, and Roth co-founded the Augusta clinic. He described Roth as "a great guy, a great doctor, devoted to patients and his family."
"They're all hard workers, all great people," Davis said. "With their kids and family left behind and all that, it's pretty devastating."
Two others who died had not yet been positively identified, the coroner said. Investigators said two pilots were also aboard the plane in addition to the clinic employees.
Thomson-McDuffie County Sheriff Logan Marshall said two survivors were taken to hospitals. Richard Trammell was in critical condition at Georgia Regents Medical Center in Augusta, hospital spokeswoman Christen Carter said. Davis said he believes Trammell was one of the pilots.
The condition of the other survivor, and where that person was taken, is not known.
Georgia Bureau of Investigation spokesman John Bankhead said the five dead were taken to an agency lab in Decatur for autopsies. They have not been identified.
The crash started a brush fire in the woods behind an industrial plant near the airport. Witnesses reported power outages in the area as well.
The private jet had been flying fairly frequently from the Thomson airport during the past several months, said Keith Bounds, the airport's general manager.
"The pilots were familiar with the facility, familiar with the area and familiar with the runway," Bounds said. "And the airplane was immaculate. The pilots kept it in pristine condition."
The pilots had sent an electronic message to close out their flight plan before the jet overshot the runway — a sign that they began their landing approach without problems, Bounds said. Skies in the area were clear Wednesday night with light wind, he said.
There was no damage or other physical signs that the jet ever touched down on the runway, Bounds said. The plane crossed a five-lane state highway near Interstate 20 before it struck the utility pole about a quarter-mile from the end of the runway.
Patricia Reese and her husband live in a farmhouse near the site. She said they were watching TV on Wednesday night when they were startled by noise and a power outage.
"The lights blinked and went off, and all of a sudden we heard this noise," Reese said. "It sounded like thunder that just kept going on and on."
Reese's husband grabbed a flashlight and they headed into the pitch-dark field behind their home. They soon saw flashing lights from emergency vehicles and thick smoke pouring from the woods, she said.
Associated Press writers Jeff Martin in Atlanta and Randall Dickerson in Nashville, Tenn., contributed to this report.