Debris fell from Navy jet before deadly crash, witness tells authorities

The U.S. Navy jet that crashed in north Georgia on Monday killing at least three people may have been damaged before it went down, according to one eyewitness account.

A man told authorities in Fannin County that he saw debris fall off the plane before impact, Lonnie Oliver, the county's Emergency Management Agency director, told the AJC on Tuesday afternoon.

"He just saw something fly from the plane," Oliver said.

Tuesday afternoon, about a dozen local sheriff's deputies and firefighters were stationed near the dense woods where the plane crashed east of Blue Ridge Lake, while a handful of Navy personnel helped to secure the area. They were awaiting the arrival of Navy investigators.

The plane just missed a home on Star Creek Road, but no one was hurt on the ground, Major Keith Bosen, of the Fannin County Sheriff's Department, told the AJC. He said the resident reported the crash at 4:26 p.m. Monday and noted that the plane flew as low as 50 to 100 feet over his home.

The crash ignited a fire that consumed 25 acres of the Chattahoochee National Forest, Oliver said.

U.S. and local firefighters battled the blaze late into the night as smoke engulfed the area. By Tuesday, the smoke was gone and the only evidence of the crash -- which occurred deep in the forest in an area without trails that is inaccessible to vehicles -- was the heavy presence of emergency personnel on the nearest road.

About a dozen sheriff's deputies and firefighters assembled in front of a large, gated home under construction on Star Creek Road on Tuesday morning. The Fannin County coroner's van and U.S. Forest Service personnel were also on the scene, and the Red Cross had set up a white tent with supplies for them.

Searchers quickly found three bodies Monday, but as of early Tuesday had not found the fourth person who was aboard the plane, Bosen said.

The aircraft was a U.S. Navy T-39 Sabreliner assigned to a training squadron based in Pensacola, Fla., according to the Pensacola News Journal, which quoted a Navy spokesman.

Bosen said local authorities were leaving the crash scene undisturbed so the military medical examiner's team from Dover, Del., could investigate. He said early Tuesday that the remains of the three confirmed dead were being left in place and that the fourth person who was on the plane had not yet been located. He said sheriff's deputies and military personnel kept guard over the crash site overnight.

"We've got a lot of wildlife in the area, and we did not want to leave those individuals out there by themselves or allow other individuals to come to the scene and maybe pick up a [plane] part, or wander in to take a look," Bosen said. "I wouldn't want somebody to leave me out somewhere all night long and not be protected."

The crash didn't attract a lot of immediate attention from residents in the area.

Beverly Thompson, who lives on Star Creek Road near the crash site, said she heard a plane buzzing low overhead and then a "thump boom" a few seconds later.

Thompson didn’t realize what had happened until a friend who had been listening to a police radio scanner called her about the crash. She looked outside and saw no smoke, but within minutes heard the sirens of arriving emergency personnel.

"We have so many who fly low over here all the time that it didn't really surprise me that it was low," she said. "I didn't think anything of it until I got the call."

Scott Parks was at his vacation home "heard a big, huge boom and looked out over my porch and saw a bunch of smoke coming up."

"I didn't think much about it," said Parks, who lives in Vancouver. "Who's going to think an airplane hit here?"

Parks said he didn't realize what had happened until later in the evening.

"I go up to the local restaurant to have dinner, and I was asked, did you hear about the plane crash, and I was real surprised," he said.

It's unclear what the aircraft was doing in the area, but Bosen, a former Marine maintenance officer, said the Blue Ridge area is in the flight path for military training exercises. He said several local officers reported seeing the aircraft flying noticeably low earlier in the day. Oliver, the emergency management director, said he saw it overhead two or three times immediately before the crash, adding that it flew over the nearby city of Blue Ridge and appeared to have been heading east over the lake before impact.

The crash occurred near the town of Morganton. It's a hilly and sparsely populated area where many of the homes are a quarter mile apart. Oliver said he noticed no power lines near the crash site that might have obstructed the aircraft's trajectory.

The impact left the plane in pieces and started a fire that spread quickly, Bosen said. U.S. Forest Service firefighters battled the blaze with help from local firefighters and two helicopters that were dumping water. By 11 p.m. Monday, Bosen said, the fire was contained and the firefighters were heading home.

Authorities called off the search for the fourth person as night fell.

The crash scene was about 75 miles east of a similar crash four years ago.

In January 2006, a Navy Sabreliner went down in Walker County in northwest Georgia, killing all four people on board.

In that crash, the T-39, also based at Pensacola Naval Air Station, hit the ground after taking off from Chattanooga on a low-level  bomb-targeting training mission.