It was still unclear as of late Thursday what happened to a small-engine aircraft that fell from the sky in Habersham County during the early morning hours, killing all three occupants on board.
The four-seat Piper PA-28 Cherokee crashed near the Habersham County Airport just after midnight, and little information was available as of press time about the victims. Calls to the Habersham County Coroner were not immediately returned.
The National Transportation Safety Board is investigating the cause of the crash.
“Weather is one of the issues we’re looking at,” said Eric Alleyne, air safety investigator with NTSB. “From what I understand from the witnesses, it was very foggy at the time.”
The plane took off from Fort Pierce, Fla., “at some point yesterday and was en route here … (there was) a gentleman who was waiting for the occupants. He said he was supposed to pick them up at this airport.”
The plane smashed into a narrow strip of woods in the middle of a mobile home park off West Airport Road in Cornelia. Alleyne said the aircraft was destroyed due to it being a heavily wooded area.
The sound of the plane awoke several residents.
Among them was Oscar Ortiz, who lives less than a hundred feet from the scene of the crash. Friend Miguel Tinoco translated for Ortiz, who does not speak English.
“It was loud. It sounded like there was something wrong with the engine,” Ortiz said. “And then, when it crashed, it shook my house. It knocked some pictures off the walls.”
Ortiz said he ran into the woods as soon as the incident occurred, but “the (person) did not respond. He appeared to be ejected from the plane. He was underneath it.”
He described the person he saw in the wreckage as a white man.
Ortiz said police arrived at the scene shortly thereafter and told him to leave the area “because there was fuel leaking everywhere.”
Georgiana Mateo, who lives near Ortiz, said she too heard “strange sounds coming from above … like a plane motor was going out.”
Mateo said she believed “God maneuvered this plane away from all these houses.”
Interviewed at the scene Thursday morning, Baldwin Police Chief Chad Nichols said police arrived at the scene shortly after midnight and “found wreckage here off of Clay Haven (a small street off of West Airport Road) with no survivors.”
Nichols said the NTSB arrived on scene around 10 a.m. Thursday.
He said the fact that the plane missed the dozens of nearby mobile homes was “a blessing.”
“This was a tragedy, and I hate that it happened, but thank the Lord it wasn’t an even worse tragedy,” Nichols said.
Alleyne said once NTSB finished its on-site investigation, officials will move the aircraft to Atlanta Air Salvage in Griffin, where the investigation of the wreckage itself will continue.
According to records on NTSB’s website, the last previous fatal plane crash near the Habersham County Airport occurred on Nov. 19, 2002.