ATLANTA — A small passenger airplane dropped from the sky, grazed the hood of a tractor-trailer and crashed into an Atlanta interstate Friday, killing all four people aboard and starting an intense fire on the busy highway.
The Piper PA-32 took off from DeKalb Peachtree Airport and apparently ran into trouble not long afterward, Federal Aviation Administration spokesman Kathleen Bergen said.
Motorist Don McGhee, 48, said he saw the aircraft nearly hit a traffic light pole near the highway onramp.
"It looked like it was struggling. You could see him trying to get the nose of the plane up. It was edging up, and then it just dropped," McGhee said. "It was just a huge fire, just smoke and fire."
Witnesses said the blaze prevented anyone on the ground from helping any victims in the wreckage. Those who tried included commercial truck driver Gerald Smith.
Smith said that as the aircraft plummeted, he had just enough time to slam on his brakes. He saw the plane swooping in low toward the passenger door of his tractor-trailer.
"It grazed my hood, and the next thing I knew I looked over to my left and that plane had crashed against the median wall," Smith said. "I first started to walk over there, but it was blazing up and there was no way to help anybody try to get out of the plane. I just turned and dropped my head and walked away."
DeKalb Fire Capt. Eric Jackson said all four people onboard died in the crash, though authorities did not immediately release the names of the victims. The plane nearly struck a vehicle being driven by a former DeKalb County firefighter.
"It's a miracle, literally a miracle, that no other cars were hit," Jackson told reporters.
Federal investigators said they will reconstruct the plane to determine what caused the aircraft to go down. Eric Alleyne of the National Transportation Safety Board said he expects reconstruction of the charred aircraft to take roughly two weeks.
The tail, other wreckage and charred concrete could be seen at the median barrier where the plane crashed. Smaller debris littered the area, including a propeller lying on the roadway about 40 feet from most of the wreckage.
"Of course the airplane is somewhat complex, but it shouldn't be a problem," Alleyne said. The plane fueled up before leaving the airport and it's unclear whether the pilot made any emergency calls after takeoff, Alleyne said. He added that the NTSB will review the plane's maintenance records and the pilot's experience.
Emergency officials shut down Interstate 285 in both directions, causing large traffic jams that spilled over onto local roads. The scene of the crash needed to be preserved for the investigation, Jackson said.
The freeway was reopened early Friday afternoon after the wreckage was moved.
Associated Press reporters Ray Henry and Phillip Lucas contributed to this report