Four people who died when their small plane crashed Friday morning on the eastbound lanes of Interstate-285 told passengers of another flight they were headed to a college graduation.
The victims, three men and one woman, were reportedly headed to a graduation at the University of Mississippi in Oxford. The men were confirmed by Channel 2 Action News as Christopher, Greg and Phillip Byrd. The woman was identified as Jackie Kulzer, the fiancée of Christopher Byrd.
Doug Alexander, who was also headed to Oxford, said his wife had a brief conversation at the airport with the party, noticing their Mississippi hats and greeting them with a “hotty toddy,” part of an Ole Miss cheer. Alexander’s plane was initially reported to have crashed.
“It was ironic that both of us were taking off to the same small place this morning,” said Alexander, who runs a consultancy, Transformational Development Counsel. “We took off in perfect conditions, which was the strange thing.”
Drivers reported hearing a loud boom and seeing a ball of fire when the plane, reportedly a Piper 32R-300, out of Asheville, N.C., slammed into the busy interstate. The plane was registered to a private company.
The pilot said, “We’re going down,” just before the crash, according to Channel 2 Action News. There were no injuries to drivers.
Pat Epps, who said his company fueled the plane, saw the unidentified owner just before the incident.
“He just came in to pick up a couple of folks and a dog,” said Epps, founder of Epps Aviation at DeKalb-Peachtree Airport.
Bunny Lenhard was on her way to get a manicure, when she suddenly saw the belly of an airplane overhead, almost on top of her. She didn’t hear the plane engine as it was coming down, she said, because she had the radio and the air conditioning on.
“I looked up and ducked,” said the Sandy Springs woman who, a moment later, saw the plane crash into flames in her rear view mirror of her Ford Edge.
She didn’t know how close the plane came to hitting her, but she figures she had to be one of the last vehicles the plane cleared before it smashed into the freeway.
“I looked into my rear view mirror and saw this mass of flames,” she said. “Everybody says this, but it really does feel very surreal … to the point of … did I really see that?
“It’s just horrible. I couldn’t stop shaking.”
I-285 was closed between Ashford Dunwoody and Chamblee Tucker for several hours and traffic was diverted to nearby exits and interstates.
Officials said the plane, also known as a Piper Lance, crashed with after taking off from Runway 3 Left, the northbound runway. National Transportation Safety Board spokesman Keith Holloway said the agency dispatched a locally-based investigator to the scene with the ultimate goal to “determine what happened and why it happened,” he said.
Holloway said the NTSB will likely issue a preliminary report next week reporting some investigation details and witness comments, but no analysis or conclusions about the likely cause of the crash. He said it usually takes a year to 18 months for the NTSB to issue a report on the crash’s probable cause.
On the ground, there were “a lot of close calls,” according to authorities, but incredibly, no motorists were reportedly injured.
One of the cars nearly hit by the plane was that of a former DeKalb firefighter, DeKalb County fire Capt. Eric Jackson said.
“It’s literally a miracle that no other cars were hit or severely impacted,” he said.
The plane impact was on the center median on the south wall.
Wesley Jordan, an off-duty Gwinnett County police officer, was driving on I-285 to Perimeter Mall for early lunch. When he heard a loud boom, he exited off the highway to see if he could help.
“It was mangled. It was gruesome,” he said.
- With Leon Stafford, Russell Grantham, Misty Williams, Andria Simmons, Eric Stirgus, Steve Visser and David Markiewicz reporting.