A small plane carrying a group of people from California to Montana crashed into a cemetery not far from the airport in Butte and burst into flames, killing seven adults and seven children.
"There was nothing left of it," said Steve Guidoni of Butte, who watched the crash yesterday. "It just went straight into the ground. I went over there to try to help. I thought maybe I would pull someone out of the fire."
Guidoni said he saw luggage and seat cushions lying around, but no bodies. He said the biggest piece of the plane was the size of a kitchen table.
"You wouldn't even know a plane was there," he said.
The death toll was confirmed by Karen Byrd, a Federal Aviation Administration operations officer in Renton, Washington. Earlier, the count had been put as high as 17.
The single engine turboprop crashed and burned at Holy Cross Cemetery, 500 feet (152 metres) short of Bert Mooney Airport in Butte, said FAA spokesman Mike Fergus.
The plane was believed to be taking its occupants on a ski trip. "We think that it was probably a ski trip for the kids," Fergus said.
An investigator with the National Transportation Safety Board offered few details at a news conference in Butte last night. No cause of the crash was given.
"We are just beginning our investigation," Kristi Dunks said. "We don't have a lot of information at this time.
"Certain family members were contacted," she said. "At this point, I don't have an exact number."
A California newspaper, the Napa Valley Register, reported on its website late yesterday that a family of five from St. Helena, California, including three preschoolers, was among the victims.
Dunks would not say if there had been a distress call from the pilot. It was partly cloudy, the visibility was 10 miles (16 kilometres) and winds were blowing from the north-west around 10 mph (16 kph) at the time of the crash, according to hourly temperature information from the National Weather Service.
The aircraft had departed from Oroville, California, and the pilot had filed a flight plan showing a destination of Bozeman, about 85 miles (137 kilometres) south-east of Butte. But the pilot cancelled his flight plan at some point and headed for Butte, Fergus said.
Butte Silver-Bow Sheriff John Walsh said there were a few people at the cemetery at the time of the crash, but no one on the ground was injured.
Nick Dipasquale, 19, was working at a gas station across the street. "I heard a loud bang," he said. "It sounded like someone ran into the building."
He said he ran outside to see flames as tall as the trees.
Dipasquale said people who were fueling their cars said they saw the plane flying low, begin a turn, start to wobble and then slam into the ground.
Fergus said the Pilatus PC-12 aircraft was manufactured in 2001.
The Pilatus PC-12 is a single-engine turboprop aircraft designed and manufactured by Pilatus Aircraft of Switzerland. It is certified for 12 persons on board and typically seats six to nine passengers plus one or two pilots. The PC-12 has a range of 1,750-2,600 miles (2,820-4,180 kilometres) and cruises at approximately 300 miles (480 kilometres) per hour, according to Flight Aware, a website that tracks air traffic.
The plane was registered to Eagle Cap Leasing Inc. in Enterprise, Oregon, Fergus said. He did not know who was operating the plane.
I. Felkamp is listed in Oregon corporate records as Eagle Cap's president. Attempts to reach him by phone were unsuccessful.
The flight originated at Brown Field Municipal airport in San Diego on Saturday evening and flew to Redlands, California, about 100 miles (160 kilometres) north, said Rachel Laing, a spokeswoman for the city of San Diego.
The plane left yesterday morning for Vacaville, California, according to Flight Aware. From there it flew to Oroville and then to Butte.
"We are still gathering the information of the aircraft, it's purpose, what they were doing and where they were going," Dunks said.
In Oroville, Tom Hagler said he saw a group of about a dozen children and four adults yesterday morning at the Oroville Municipal Airport, about 70 miles (113 kilometres) north of Sacramento.
Hagler, owner of Table Mountain Aviation, described the children as being six to 10 years old. He let the children into his building to use the restroom.
"There were a lot of kids in the group," he said. "A lot of really cute kids."
Hagler said he showed the pilot where he could fuel his plane, and the pilot said he expected his flight to take two-and-a-half hours. The pilot did not file a flight plan at the Oroville airport.
It was the worst plane crash in America since a commuter plane last month fell on a house in a suburb of Buffalo, New York, killing all 49 passengers and a man in the home.
Before the Buffalo crash there hadn't been an accident involving a commercial airliner in the US in which there were fatalities in more than two years.Reuse content