Photo credit: Savannah Professional Firefighters Association
PORT WENTWORTH, Ga. - The Puerto Rico National Guard says the nine Guard members killed in a plane crash in Georgia leave behind wives, children and other loved ones.
The nine dead servicemen were identified as having ranks ranging from senior airman to major. They ranged from three to 31 years of service. All were from Puerto Rico, and one had recently been residing in Alabama.
Most were married and had children.
The National Guard said that it will continue to support the families for as long as they need help.
The U.S. military has also launched its investigation into the crash of a C-130 cargo plane that killed nine Puerto Rican airmen after takeoff in coastal Georgia on Wednesday.
Col. Pete Boone of the Georgia Air National Guard spoke at a news conference Thursday morning and said investigators will use "every resource at our disposal to identify a cause."
Boone said the military has also confirmed all nine airmen on board died when the large aircraft plunged onto Highway 21 moments after taking off from the Savannah/Hilton Head International Airport. The crash caused a large fireball and explosion.
The plane was in Savannah for "routine maintenance" and crashed after leaving for Arizona.
Officials with the Puerto Rico Air National Guard have said the aircraft was 60 years old, but Boone said its age was closer to 40 years old.
At the news conference, Boone said the families of the dead airmen are being notified.
Thursday morning, the pilot of the military plane was identified as Maj. Jose Rafael Roman. The mayor of Manati, which is along Puerto Rico's north coast, said Roman was a father of two young boys and his wife is five months pregnant with a baby girl.
"The town is in mourning," Mayor Jose Sanchez said.
As the plane came crashing down, it narrowly missed people on the ground.
"It miraculously did not hit any cars, any homes," Effingham County Sheriff's spokeswoman Gena Bilbo said. "This is a very busy roadway."
The huge plane's fuselage appeared to have struck the median, and pieces of its wings, which spanned 132 feet (40 meters), were scattered across lanes in both directions. The only part still intact was the tail section, said Chris Hanks, a spokesman for the Savannah Professional Firefighters Association.
The plane belonged to the 156th Air Wing and was used to rescue U.S. citizens stranded in the British Virgin Islands following Hurricane Irma and ferry supplies to the U.S. territory of Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria last year.
"The planes that we have in Puerto Rico -- it's not news today that they are the oldest planes on inventory," Rivera said. Puerto Rico's National Guard has five other similar planes, two of which are not in use because they require maintenance, he said.
It's too early to say what might have caused the accident, officials said. The plane last received maintenance at the base in Savannah in April.
All nine crew members had helped with hurricane recovery efforts, Rivera said.
"This pains us," Rivera said of the deaths. They aren't releasing more names until all the families have been contacted, but "most of them already know and have come to the base" on the island, Rivera said.
Motorist Mark Jones, who captured the aftermath on cell phone, told FOX 5, he saw the plane hit the road right in front of him, about a mile (less than two kilometers) from the airport.
"The explosion-- it was indescribable. It was just a huge fireball," Jones said, describing how close cars were to the explosion.
"He was barely above the treeline, and tried to make a hard bank left turn. In the middle of that left turn, he nosedived straight into the ground," said eyewitness Roger Best. "In my opinion, he's a hero," he said, believing the pilot purposely missed the people and cars below.
The U.S. territory's Gov. Ricardo Rossello expressed his sadness, tweeting that "our prayers are with the families of the Puerto Rican crew."
President Donald Trump tweeted that he had been briefed on the crash, and sent "thoughts and prayers for the victims, their families and the great men and women of the National Guard."
Authorities said they are working to notify the family members of the deceased service members.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.