A military refueling jet that crashed on takeoff, killing all 19 aboard, appeared to veer away from a cluster of houses before tipping onto the ground and exploding in a mushroom-shaped fireball, witnesses said.

"It couldn't have been more than 50 or 60 feet off the ground," said Skeet Jackson, who witnessed Tuesday's crash of the Hawaii-bound KC-135A from his back yard. "That left wing hit the ground and (crashed) just like these pictures of atomic bombs you've seen."Officials at Dyess Air Force Base outside Abilene and at K.I. Sawyer Air Force Base near Marquette, Mich., where the flight originated, said the passengers included spouses of military members, retired military members and one child.

Members of the Air Force's Accident Investigation Board arrived at Dyess Wednesday. Their investigation may be hampered by the fact that no flight data recorder was aboard the modified Boeing 707, said 1st Lt. John Ames, deputy chief of public affairs at Dyess. Ames said he didn't know if a cockpit voice recorder was aboard.

The tanker was scheduled to refuel F-16s in the air as part of a training mission before flying nonstop to Hawaii, the spokesman said.

Ames said it was unclear how much fuel the plane was carrying but added it was enough to complete the mission and make the eight-hour flight to Hawaii.

The flight manifest showed that 17 of the passengers were from Sawyer and the two others boarded at Dyess, said Master Sgt. Al Doster, another Dyess spokesman. In addition to seven crew members, four passengers were on active duty in the military, four were retired military and among the four dependents was one child, Ames said. Names were withheld pending notification of relatives.

Doster said it was not uncommon for dependents to fly "space available" aboard a military flight. But Ames said, "If they can get there by commercial jet . . . there are certain regulations that prohibit civilians from flying military aircraft. There are certain exceptions to that rule."

The plane crashed shortly after noon Tuesday near the end of the Dyess runway, near U.S. 277 six miles southwest of Abilene. The wreckage was scattered over 2 square miles, Air Force officials said.

Kenneth Fowler, who witnessed the crash from his home near the south end of the runway, said he sensed disaster when he first saw the plane.

He said he watched in horror through his kitchen window as the airplane struggled to get airborne. "I've been watching these dudes out here for three years and you get used to the sound," he said. "Right then, I said to myself, `He's not going to make it.' "