A sound like thunder, then the DC-8 hit the streets of Miami

A DC-8 cargo plane crashed shortly after take-off from Miami airport yesterday and burst into flames in a warehouse district of the city, hitting a light industrial building and cutting power in the immediate district.

Three crew and a security guard were on board the aircraft which belonged to Fine Air. There were no reports of casualties, but the intensity of smoke and flames suggested that there were unlikely to be survivors.

The crash is the second air disaster in US territory in a week. On Monday a Korean Air jumbo jet crashed into a hillside while attempting to land on the Pacific island of Guam. The plane, filled with mainly Korean holiday- makers, came down in a rainstorm at a time when some of the airport's navigation system was out of action and had been for a month.

Eyewitnesses in Miami spoke of the aircraft appearing to go "straight up almost like a missile" shortly before the crash; others described how it narrowly missed their office buildings and cars as it fell to the ground, saying that it was "like a whole plane on fire".

"He couldn't handle it, and I guess it went straight on down. We all witnessed it go down and explode," said James Moralez of the fire-rescue department, who saw the crash.

Local residents said the area, which includes a major road and a post office, was usually busy in the middle of the day when the plane went down, and said it would be miraculous if no one on the ground was killed.

One man, who said he was only half a block away at the time of the crash, said the falling plane had "made a sound like roaring thunder", but that the main force of the impact had been on a parking area, next to the building that was hit. It was not immediately clear how badly the buildings were damaged but it appeared they were still standing.

One witness said that he had seen one of the right-hand engines of the plane on fire shortly before the crash.

Fine Air, which was formed eight years ago, was described as an "established" company specialising in transporting freight in the southern US and Caribbean region. The crashed aircraft was on a flight to Santo Domingo in the Dominican Republic.

A spokesman for the US Air Freight Association described the DC-8 as the "workhorse of the US cargo fleet". It is a former passenger plane that was converted to cargo use with the arrival of the jumbo jet. Hundreds of them are in service across the country. Another specialist said the DC-8s were mostly 30 years old, but that with proper maintenance its age should not be a problem.

US investigators in Washington were yesterday examining the black boxes to try to establish the cause of the crash. The initially favoured explanation was pilot error.

Among the causes suggested for yesterday's crash included a flock of birds in an engine, a miscalculation of the thrust needed for take-off in the very specific conditions of heat and air pressure at Miami, or misloaded cargo.

There is no indication that maintenance or airport standards played any role in either crash. However, standards of inspection and compliance at US airports have come in for severe criticism in recent months, most notably from a former inspector, Mary Schiavo, whose book on the subject caused a furore when it appeared earlier this year.

In Washington, the National Transportation Safety Board said a team of investigators was being sent to the site.