PORT WENTWORTH, GA (WTOC) - State and government agencies are in town assisting with the deadly military plane crash that claimed the lives of nine Puerto Rico National Guard members on Wednesday.
The crash site on GA-21 in Port Wentworth remains a very active scene Thursday.
There have been conflicting reports on the number of people the plane was actually carrying, but military officials have now confirmed nine people - five crew members and four additional military members - were on board at the time. There are no known survivors. The nine people who perished in the crash were all Puerto Rico Air National Guard airmen. Military officials are in the process of notifying the families.
The pilot has been identified as Maj. Jose Rafael Roman, from the coastal town of Manati along Puerto Rico's north coast. The mayor of that town, Jose Sanchez, told The Associated Press that Roman had two sons and his wife is five months pregnant with a girl.
The names of the other eight fallen Airmen are:
- Maj. Carlos Pérez Serra – Navigator – 23 years of service - from Canóvanas, PR. He is survived by his wife, two sons, and daughter.
- 1st Lt. David Albandoz – Co-Pilot – 16 years of service - from PR, recently residing in Madison, Alabama. He is survived by his wife and daughter.
- Senior Master Sgt. Jan Paravisini – Mechanic – 21 years of service - from Canóvanas, PR. He is survived by two daughters and son.
- Master Sgt. Jean Audiffred – 16 years of service - from Carolina, PR. He is survived by his wife and two sons.
- Master Sgt. Mario Braña – Flight Engineer – 17 years of service - from Bayamón, PR. He is survived by his mother and daughter.
- Master Sgt. Víctor Colón – 22 years of service - from Santa Isabel, PR. He is survived by his wife and two daughters.
- Master Sgt. Eric Circuns – Loadmaster – 31 years of service - from Rio Grande, PR. He is survived by his wife, two step-daughters, and son.
- Senior Airman Roberto Espada– three years of service - from Salinas, PR. He is survived by his grandmother.
According to a news release from the 165th Airlift Wing in Savannah, the C-130 Hercules cargo plane from the Puerto Rico Air National Guard crashed shortly after takeoff around 11:30 a.m. Wednesday while performing a training mission. The Federal Aviation Administration says the plane was at the Savannah/Hilton Head International Airport for routine maintenance before heading to the Davis-Monthan Air Force Base in Tucson, AZ.
A military official says the C-130 aircraft was manufactured in the late 70s, so it was not 60 years old as previously thought.
Hundreds of police and firefighters from nearby cities and counties answered the call for help, as well as members of the FBI, GBI, Georgia Public Safety, Georgia DNR, Georgia DOT, GEMA, and CEMA. The support proved vital in the minutes and even hours after the crash.
"We are fortunate in that we have a great working relationship with our sister agencies," said Chief Matt Libby, Port Wentworth Police Department. "Whether that be in Chatham County or Effingham, the agencies' response, police, fire, and EMS was outstanding."
The fact that the crash hit a small town like Port Wentworth made the response even more necessary.
"You have to help. You can't do this on your own. You have to partner with everybody you can, whether that's military assets, civilian assets, whatever you have," Chief Libby said.
The Chatham County coroner responded to the crash as soon as he got the call. He tells us he responded immediately because he did not know at that time who was involved, whether that be military personnel or civilians. Once he realized it wasn't in their hands, he still stayed on the scene to offer any assistance he could. He says after his experience serving in the military, and his time as the coroner, he quickly knew the crash was not survivable.
"There was no fuselage that looked anywhere in tact. It was all rubble, shards of metal this big, you know, everywhere," coroner, Bill Weissinger said.
As they at least tried to recover those on board, he says the aftermath of the damage was too dangerous.
"There was still a lot of smoke and little fires breaking out on the aircraft and they had to fog it again," Weissinger said.
Once the crash was designated a military matter, the lives of those lost were taken out of the coroner's control.
A team out of an Air Force base in Charleston is handling the entirety of the investigation while local law enforcement tackles the traffic challenges. The crash caused a 600x600 foot field of debris, which is why that portion of the highway is shut down for weeks.
The train tracks and access to the ports were also affected by the crash, but are now back to normal.
Law enforcement says the military must first investigate the crash site. Once that's complete, crews will need to clean up the aircraft and debris field. Hazardous material will then need to be examined before the Department of Transportation can complete the final step. Once the plane is removed, construction crews may have to repair the road.
"An investigation is currently in progress to determine the cause of this tragic event, and ways to prevent such occurrences from happening in the future," said Col. Peter Boone, Vice Wing Commander, 165th Airlift Wing. "It's extremely important to fully understand what has happened. Our people are our most important resource and our number one priority is the safety and well-being of all of our airmen. We are a close-knit family and when a tragedy like this occurs, every member of the United States Armed Forces feels it."
According to Gena Bilbo, Public Information Officer for the Effingham County Sheriff's Office, Highway 21 will remain closed indefinitely all the way to the Sonny Dixon Interchange, which is a major work commute thoroughfare for Effingham County and West Chatham County residents. Law enforcement is asking citizens to consider carpooling and leaving earlier than normal for the morning commute. Click here for detour routes.
"I would bet 30 days right now, just playing it as 30 days. Don't know, it could be more or less. Have that in your mindset and make your plans," Chief Libby said. "We have a lot of commercial traffic here. We're working with the state now, trying to ensure we can manage all the traffic. We're hoping when it's feasible to pull back some of our road closure points to gain more access, but the issue is we can't over-inundate some of these side roads. We just can't."
The U.S. Air Force will conduct a thorough investigation into the cause of the crash. Witnesses are being urged to call investigators at 912-966-8290.
Officials will hold frequent news conferences to provide the latest updates. Count on WTOC to continue to bring you the latest developments throughout the investigation.