UNADILLA, Ga. — A plane carrying members of a National Guard engineering crew crashed and burst into flames in a farm field in heavy rain Saturday, killing all 21 people on board, officials said.
Three Army personnel and 18 Air National Guard members were aboard the twin-engine C-23 Sherpa that crashed near Unadilla, about 30 miles south of Macon, said John Birdsong, a spokesman for Robins Air Force Base.
A spokeswoman for the Virginia Air National Guard said all 18 of the transport plane's passengers were members of a Virginia-based military construction and engineering crew on a routine training mission.
The plane's pilot and two other crew members were members of the 171st Aviation Battalion of the Florida Army National Guard, officials said.
Identities of the victims were not released.
John Allen Bryant Sr., 57, heard the crash in a field on his farm, about two miles from his house. He rushed to the site.
"It was just a horrible, horrible scene," Bryant said in a telephone interview. "The plane was just about completely gone. There was very little of its stuff left. It just about all had burned up. It was just awful."
Dennis Posey, a farmer who lives about a half-mile from the field, said he jumped into his pickup and headed to the crash site after hearing a loud thud. The plane exploded only moments after it landed, Posey said.
"There was no way" anyone survived, Posey said. "As soon as I seen that plane, I knew nobody could come out of that."
Posey said his father, D.E. Posey, was one of the first people to arrive at the scene and saw several pieces fall off the plane as it descended.
"There was a wing off it and a part of the tail section," he said. "Matter of fact, a wing, probably 20 feet of it, was on a piece of my farm."
Mike Bryant, who also lives nearby, said he could tell the plane was in trouble when he heard it pass overhead.
"I turned around, and I saw it just fall to the ground. It exploded. It wasn't on fire until it hit the ground. Then it exploded and burst into flames," said Bryant, who is not related to John Bryant Sr.
The fire was put out shortly after, Birdsong said.
Officials have not determined the cause of the crash. Heavy rains and winds swept the area throughout Friday night and Saturday as part of a huge storm system moving across the South.
The plane was assigned to the Florida National Guard's 171st Aviation Battalion and based at Lakeland, Fla. It had taken off Saturday morning from Hurlburt Field near Fort Walton Beach and was headed to Oceana Naval Air Station, Va. No trouble was reported then, said Air Force Capt. Carol Kanode, a field spokeswoman.
Kathleen Bergen, a spokeswoman for the Federal Aviation Administration, said the pilot had filed a flight plan with the agency and would have had regular contact with FAA air-traffic controllers along the route.
She did not know if the C-23 pilot had contacted controllers about a flight problem.
Late Saturday afternoon, families of the 18 Virginia-based victims — all members of the 203rd Red Horse Unit of the National Guard — gathered at Camp Pendleton State Military Reservation in Virginia Beach.
President Bush said he was deeply saddened at news of the crash.
"This tragic loss on a routine training mission reminds us of the sacrifices made each and every day by all of our men and women in uniform," Bush said in a statement. "The price of freedom is never free. Today's events remind us that it is sometimes unspeakably high."