9 killed in military plane crash are from Puerto Rico Air National Guard

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PORT WENTWORTH, Ga. (AP) – An aging C-130 Hercules that rescued and resupplied U.S. citizens after last year’s hurricanes crashed onto a highway in Georgia during what was supposed to be its final flight, killing all nine Puerto Ricans on board.

The huge plane was being flown into retirement in Arizona, reducing Puerto Rico’s National Guard fleet to five similar planes, two of which need maintenance and aren’t being used, Adjutant Gen. Isabelo Rivera said. He said the aircraft was more than 60 years old.

“The planes that we have in Puerto Rico — it’s not news today that they are the oldest planes on inventory” among all National Guard planes nationwide, and they often face delays in getting spare parts shipped to the island, he said.

However, at a Thursday news conference Col. Pete Boone of the Georgia Air National Guard said the plane’s age was closer to 40 years. He said Boone the plane had been in Savannah for “routine maintenance” and crashed after taking off for Arizona.

Boone also said the U.S. military has launched its investigation into the crash, and said investigators will “use every resource at our disposal to identify a cause.”

The pilot was identified as Maj. Jose Rafael Roman, who hails from the coastal town of Manati along Puerto Rico’s north coast. The mayor of that town, Jose Sanchez, told The Associated Press that Roman had two young boys and his wife is five months pregnant with a girl.

“The town is in mourning,” Sanchez said. “My condolences to all Puerto Rican families.”

It’s too early to say what might have caused the plane to drop out of the sky onto Georgia’s Highway 21 moments after taking off from Savannah/Hilton Head International Airport. Rivera said the plane last received maintenance at the military base in Savannah in April.

All nine crew members had helped with hurricane recovery efforts as part of the 198th Fighter Squadron, nicknamed the Bucaneros, which flies out of Base Muniz in the northern coastal city of Carolina, Rivera said. The squadron used the plane to rescue Americans from the British Virgin Islands after Hurricane Irma, and later supplied food and water to Puerto Ricans desperate for help after Hurricane Maria.

“The National Guard is an extended family,” Rivera said as doctors, psychologists and chaplains gathered to meet with the victims’ relatives.

The huge plane came down so hard that the only part still intact was its tail section, said Chris Hanks, a spokesman for the Savannah Professional Firefighters Association. The fuselage appeared to have struck the median, and pieces of its wings, which spanned 132 feet (40 meters), were scattered across lanes in both directions.

The debris field stretched 600 feet (183 meters) in diameter, Effingham County Sheriff’s spokeswoman Gena Bilbo said.

“It miraculously did not hit any cars, any homes,” she said. Eight hours after the crash, she confirmed that “To our knowledge there are no survivors.”

Motorist Mark Jones told the Savannah Morning News that he saw the plane hit the road right in front of him, and explode in a huge fireball.

“It didn’t look like it nosedived, but it almost looked like it stalled and just went almost flat right there in the middle of the highway,” Jones said.

“I’m still shook up and shaking. My stomach is in knots because I know they’re people just like me. I wasn’t that far from it and I could have just kept going and it would have been me and we wouldn’t be talking right now,” Jones said.

The U.S. territory’s Gov. Ricardo Rossello expressed his sadness, tweeting that “our prayers are with the families of the Puerto Rican crew.”

President Donald Trump tweeted that he had been briefed on the crash, and sent “thoughts and prayers for the victims, their families and the great men and women of the National Guard.”

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Coto reported from San Juan, Puerto Rico. Associated Press writer Jeff Martin in Atlanta contributed to this report.

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PORT WENTWORTH, Ga. (WSAV) – On Wednesday, a military C-130 aircraft crashed on Hwy. 21 in Port Wentworth near Savannah Hilton Head International Airport, killing all nine people on board. 

On Thursday morning, officials held a news conference with updates to the crash investigation as well as traffic concerns near the crash site.

Effingham County Sheriff’s Office Public Information Officer, Gena Bilbo, restated that Highway 21 from Ga. 307 to Gulfstream Road is shut down indefinitely, and officials cannot begin to clean up the debris until after military officials conduct their full investigation.

She said they are asking employers to consider staggering their business hours to ease congestion in the area. They are also asking people to carpool until that section of Hwy. 21 is back open.

Col. Pete Boone of the 165th Airlift Wing of the Georgia Air National Guard, said the nine servicemembers who were on board the aircraft were members of the Puerto Rico National Guard and all nine were killed in the accident. 

He asked for everyone’s patience while they work to conduct a thorough investigation and that no one should speculate about the cause of the crash. Officials are still in the process of notifying families of the servicemembers and asks for everyone to respect their privacy as these notifications take place. 

Boone said the aircraft was a WC-130 that was manufactured in the 1970s and the stop at Savannah Hilton Head International Airport was part of scheduled maintenance. The aircraft was headed to Arizona before it crashed. 

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