PORT WENTWORTH, GA. - Military investigators began the arduous task Thursday of answering why a C-130 Hercules cargo plane being flown into retirement by an experienced crew plunged onto a Georgia highway. Families and friends of the nine airmen, meanwhile, grieved and took note of the fact that Puerto Rico's planes are the oldest in the National Guard inventory.
There were no survivors when the huge plane dropped from the sky moments after taking off from Savannah, Georgia, narrowly missing motorists and buildings as fiery wreckage exploded over a wide area. Only the tail section was intact, sitting improbably in the middle of Georgia Highway 21.
A military officer told reporters Thursday that investigators were on the scene, but he offered no preliminary findings
“It's extremely important for us to understand what has happened,” said Col. Pete Boone, vice commander of the 165th Airlift Wing of the Georgia Air National Guard. He said investigators would use “every resource at our disposal to properly identify a cause.”
The aging plane had rescued and resupplied American citizens after last year's hurricanes as part of the U.S. territory's fleet, which often struggles to remain mission-ready amid long waits for spare parts, said Adjutant Gen. Isabelo Rivera, commander of the Puerto Rico National Guard.
The plane crashed after taking off from Savannah/ Hilton Head International Airport en route to Arizona, where it would have been retired from service. Boone said it had received “routine maintenance” while in Savannah. He did not know if the crew made a distress call to air traffic controllers after takeoff.
All nine airmen on board were confirmed dead, Boone said. The military made their names public Thursday afternoon.
The pilot was identified as Maj. Jose Rafael Roman, from Manati on the island's north coast. Manati Mayor Jose Sanchez told The Associated Press that Roman had two sons and his wife is five months pregnant with a girl.
“The town is in mourning,” Sanchez said.
Carlos Narvaez, a newspaper sports editor who was Roman's close childhood friend, told the AP that Roman was nicknamed “Rotor” because he loved all things with a motor that go fast. He said 43-year-old Roman was president of his high school class and worked at a company that manufactured aluminum windows before joining the National Guard in the mid-2000s after graduating as a pilot in Memphis, Tennessee.
In December, Narvaez said Roman raised concerns about the age of the planes they were using.
“He told me, ‘We're using the oldest planes of the entire United States of America,’” Narvaez recalled.
Jeremy Roman, the pilot's youngest son, said in a statement that he was extremely proud of his father: “You're a hero, and you're my hero, and I want everyone to know I'm very proud of you.”
The crash leaves Puerto Rico's National Guard with five large cargo planes, but two of them need maintenance and aren't being used, Rivera said.
Though Rivera had initially said the aircraft was more than 60 years old, Puerto Rico Air National Guard spokesman Maj. Paul Dahlen said Thursday that was a mistake, and the plane was manufactured in the early 1970s, making it more than 40 years old.
Meanwhile, the military identified the plane's navigator as Maj. Carlos Perez Serra and its co-pilot as 1st Lt. David Albandoz.
Also killed were Senior Master Sgt. Jan Paravisini, a mechanic; Master Sgt. Jean Audriffred; Master Sgt. Mario Brana, a flight engineer; Master Sgt. Victor Colon; Master Sgt. Eric Circuns, a loadmaster; and Senior Airman Roberto Espada.
All nine crew members had helped with hurricane recovery efforts as part of the 198th Fighter Squadron, nicknamed the Bucaneros, which flies out of Base Muniz in the northern coastal city of Carolina, Rivera said. The squadron used the plane to rescue Americans from the British Virgin Islands after Hurricane Irma, and later supplied food and water to Puerto Ricans desperate for help after Hurricane Maria.