A plane that crashed into a shopping center near Essendon airport in Melbourne, Australia, killing five people, had a “catastrophic engine failure” shortly after takeoff, police said.
An Australian pilot and four US tourists heading to King Island to play golf were on the twin-engine aircraft, which left the airport at about 9am yesterday.
“The pilot unfortunately attempted to return to Essendon, but has crashed into the DFO at Essendon Fields,” Police Assistant Commissioner Stephen Leane told reporters.
Leane said there had been “a number of fatalities,” but none of the staff at the shopping center — which was not open to the public — had been killed.
The US embassy has confirmed that four of its citizens were killed.
Victoria Premier Daniel Andrews said it was the worst civil aviation disaster in the state for 30 years and commended the work of emergency-services personnel who attended the scene.
Essendon airport and the DFO shopping center have been closed indefinitely to allow for investigations by the coroner and the Australian Transport Safety Bureau.
Only police, ambulance and firefighting planes, which are based at Essendon, had clearance to fly.
Victoria’s police minister confirmed earlier yesterday that the plane was a commercial charter flight bound for the island in the Bass Strait.
Andrews said he had spoken to Tasmanian Premier Will Hodgman about how the closure of the airport might affect freight routes.
Police reopened the outbound lanes of the Tullamarine Freeway, but inbound lanes covered with debris from the crash were closed.
Emergency Management Commissioner Craig Lapsley said psychological support would be provided to emergency-services personnel and witnesses to the crash, saying the government had “learned a lot from Bourke Street” about managing trauma.
Counseling services were offered in the wake of last month’s Bourke Street tragedy, which led to the deaths of six people.
Superintendent Mick Frewen said at a news conference earlier yesterday that police did not know how many people might have been in the shopping center when the crash occurred.
“We have been unable to assess the scene because the fire is still burning,” Frewen said. “As soon as the MFP [Metropolitan Fire Brigade] put out the fire we will do an assessment on the structural integrity of the building and then we will send in people to check for injuries or fatalities.”
The explosion sent one of the aircraft’s wheels on to the Tullamarine Freeway, Fairfax Radio reported, and police closed the Tullamarine and Calder freeways as a plume of black smoke covered the area.
Witnesses said on Twitter they had seen a large fireball followed by a plume of black smoke.
A caller to ABC Melbourne, Jason, said he was in a taxi when he looked out the window and saw what he thought was a twin-propeller plane.
“I saw this plane coming in really low and fast. It went just behind the barriers so I couldn’t see the impact, but when it hit the building there was a massive fireball,” he said. “I could feel the heat through the window of the taxi and then a wheel, it looked like a plane wheel, bounced on the road and hit the front of the taxi as we were driving along. We kept driving and there was [a] big fireball behind us.”
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