NASHVILLE — A small, twin-propeller plane slammed into the ground Monday afternoon, killing four on board just yards from where children played and swam at a busy YMCA in the community of Bellevue, Tenn.
"I was with the kids. They were swimming. I was down on the benches watching them swim," said Chastity Mitchell, who lives in Bellevue. "I just heard a really horrible explosion and looked up (at) those glass windows and saw a wall of fire."
All four people on board died in the crash, authorities said, which spat flames 20 feet into the air along with a plume of smoke that could be seen for blocks and debris littered the ground 100 feet away in every direction.
The Federal Aviation Administration said the Gulfstream 690C had flown out of Great Bend Municipal Airport in Kansas and was headed to John C. Tune Airport in Nashville. It crashed about 10 miles southwest of its destination.
"We pretty quickly realized that there were no lives to save," said Nashville District Fire Chief George Hickey. "It's the worst plane crash I've ever seen."
Rescue workers had recovered three bodies by Monday evening and were confident they would find the fourth.
The cause of the crash remained under investigation Monday and the identities of those on board were not released.
The FAA has not yet confirmed who owned the plane. However, only one Gulfstream 690C is registered in the state of Kansas, to a Pawnee Rock, Kan.-based company called Mid-Kansas Agri Co.
Data from flightaware.com, which tracks flights in real time, shows the plane taking off from Great Bend around 2:45 p.m. with an intended destination of John C. Tune Airport. The site shows the plane passing over John C. Tune before going down just before 5 p.m.
Martin Miller, the manager at Great Bend Airport confirmed the plane was based at that airport. He said federal officials were en route to Nashville to begin an investigation.
He described Mid-Kansas as a privately owned company. He said he did not know the identities of the plane's passengers or pilot.
No one answered the phone at the Kansas company's office Monday evening. Jacob Roenbaugh, who is listed as the company's resident agent, declined to comment.
"I don't want to talk about it now," he said.
The dead are believed to have been a family headed to a convention at the Gaylord Opryland Resort & Convention Center.
Witnesses heard struggling engine
Residents who live on a hill overlooking the crash site, said the sound of the aircraft's struggling engine got their attention.
Paula Tipps heard the aircraft puttering before it appeared through the clouds and circled once before nose diving. She heard the noise — like a car crash — before seeing the explosion and fire.
Similarly, Tim Dial was watching an old movie with his wife, Nancy, when they heard the buzzing of the plane overhead. The buzzing stopped. The silence was followed by a loud bang.
"As soon as I heard that I said, 'This is a plane crash,' " he said.
In seconds, Dial and dozens of his neighbors took off running down the muddy hill outside his house. They were confronted with towering flames and a thick plume of black smoke.
"It was just thick all over this neighborhood for a long time," he said. "It's a miracle it didn't hit anything.
"It was so fast," he said. "You hardly had time to process it."
No one was hurt on the ground though the debris from the impact damaged several vehicles in the YMCA parking lot. The organization said that chaplains and counselors will be made available to those who witnessed the crash. The YMCA will be closed until police allow it to reopen.
"Our thoughts and prayers continue to be with the victims' families and all those affected by the crash," read a statement from the YMCA. "While details of the crash are still emerging, the near-miss of our building surely saved dozens of people from harm."
Cause of accident unknown
Exactly what went wrong was unclear Monday night.
The FAA told Metro police that the plane missed the first approach and crashed on its second approach to the airport. Air traffic control communications indicate on the first approach that the pilot, identified only by the plane's tail number "N840V," was slightly off course.
"840 Victor, yes sir, I'm showing you about a half-a-mile east of the final there, that's why we were asking if you were showing yourself established on the approach," a woman asks.
"That's correct, I'm just a little east of course," the pilot responds.
After the second attempt, air traffic controllers ask someone to check on 840 Victor when he doesn't confirm that he's landed.
"Approach, no joy on the commander from Eagle Creek 200 and Corporate Flight Management on the ground does not have them on the ground either," someone can be heard reporting back.
Tripp Costas, a private pilot who has flown out of John C. Tune Airport for eight years, said an alert went out to pilots warning about icy conditions around the time of the crash.
"In weather like today, it's tough flying weather, especially for a plane without deicing equipment," Costas said.
Whatever the cause, Hickey, the fire chief, marveled that the pilot managed to avoid crashing into any buildings or vehicles, just clipping some trees as it headed toward the ground. That includes the YMCA, which could have had up to 300 children and parents inside at the time.
"I'm no expert, but that tells me the pilot did one hell of a job," Hickey said.