Two people have died after a small private jet plane attempted to make an emergency landing on Interstate 75 in south-west Florida on Friday afternoon, colliding with two vehicles and bringing traffic to a halt as a plume of black smoke rose into the air.
The crash landing happened near the Pine Ridge Road exit in Collier county, just north of where the interstate heads east toward Fort Lauderdale along what is known as Alligator Alley.
It occurred moments after the crashed jet’s pilots told an airport traffic controller that the plane “was not going to make the runway” after losing both engines, the Associated Press reported, citing audio the news outlet obtained.
Brianna Walker saw the wing of the plane drag the car in front of hers and slam into a wall.
“It’s seconds that separated us from the car in front of us,” she said. “The wing pulverized this one car.”
Walker and her friend spotted the plane moments before it hit the highway, allowing her friend to pull over before the crash.
“The plane was over our heads by inches,” she said. “It took a hard right and skid across the highway.”
Walker said an explosion of flames then burst from the plane with a loud boom. Pieces of the plane littered the highway.
“It feels unreal, like a movie,” she said. “It was seconds between us dying.”
Florida highway patrol said the plane also struck a pickup truck on the highway.
The Federal Aviation Administration identified the aircraft as a Bombardier Challenger 600 jet and said five people had been aboard when the crash happened around 3.15pm local time.
The plane had taken off from an airport at Ohio State University in Columbus, Ohio, at about 1pm and was scheduled to land in Naples around the time of the crash, said Robin King, the Naples airport authority spokesperson.
A pilot had contacted the tower requesting an emergency landing, saying they had lost both engines. The tower lost contact and then airport workers saw the smoke from the interstate just a few miles away.
King said they sent fire trucks with special foam to the scene and three of the five people on board were taken from the wreckage alive.
Adam Fisher, a Collier county sheriff’s office spokesperson, confirmed two deaths, but said he didn’t immediately know whether the victims had been passengers on the plane or had been on the ground.
Molly Best, a highway patrol spokesperson, said three people from the plane had survived and two other people had been killed. But she declined to specify whether the two fatalities were from the plane or the vehicles involved, saying next of kin were still being notified.
According to the FlightAware.com aircraft tracker, the plane was operated by Hop-a-Jet Worldwide Charter based in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. The aircraft had been scheduled to fly back to Fort Lauderdale Friday afternoon. Hop-a-Jet did not immediately respond to an email and phone message seeking comment.
A spokesperson for Ohio State University said the aircraft was not affiliated with the university and they had no further information about it.
The FAA and the National Transportation Safety Board will determine precisely why the jet made an emergency landing on the interstate at the time of the crash, with the NTSB leading the investigation. One NTSB investigator arrived at the crash site Friday afternoon, with several more expected to arrive on Saturday. They will document the scene and examine the aircraft, which will then be taken to a secure facility for further evaluation. A preliminary report about the cause of the crash can be expected in 30 days.
Among the evidence that investigators had started looking at by Saturday were the communications between the plane’s pilot and the air traffic controller at the Naples airport.
“We’re clear to land but we’re not gonna make the runway,” the pilot said on a recording of the communications, according to the AP. “We’ve lost both engines.”
The Florida highway patrol said in a news release that the southbound lanes of the interstate had been closed and advised motorists to seek alternate routes.