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Witnesses suggest Guard plane broke up before crash

Scenes from the crash site in Unadilla, Georgia, on Saturday


UNADILLA, Georgia (CNN) -- Military crews on Sunday were to begin the grim task of reclaiming the bodies of 21 National Guard troops killed in a plane crash in rural Georgia.

The Florida National Guard C-23 Sherpa transport went down in bad weather Saturday morning near Unadilla, Georgia, about two hours south of Atlanta. The crash killed 18 members of a rapid construction and repair unit from Virginia's Air National Guard and three crew members from Florida's Army National Guard, Florida National Guard spokesman Jon Myatt said.

Darrell Posey, who lives about half a mile from the crash site, said pieces of the aircraft's tail and wing landed in his yard -- suggesting the aircraft began to break up before the crash. The plane went down in a field and exploded, Posey said.

"I wanted to go out there," he said. "But as soon as I saw it, I knew no one could have survived. And when it blew up again, it looked like 1,000 Roman candles."

Smoldering wreckage litters the scene of the National Guard plane crash

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Florida National Guard Maj. Gen. Ronald O. Harrison speaks about the crash (from CNN affiliate WJXT)

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CNN's Donna Kelley speaks with Dooly County Sheriff Van Peavy about the crash

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Information on the U.S. military plane crash:

  •  Look at the C-23
  •  Recent fatal military accidents
  •  Statement from President Bush
  •  Statement from the military
  •  Military units involved in crash


His wife, Gay Posey, said the plane was coming in "really low, really fast. I thought something was wrong." At least six pieces of the aircraft landed on their property.

Air Force teams worked Saturday night to preserve the scene for investigators, covering some of the wreckage with tarps to protect it from the driving rain. Military and civilian investigators converged on the rain-soaked field where the twin-engine turboprop crashed about 10 a.m. Saturday.

Crews were scheduled to begin removing bodies from the wreckage Sunday morning, said Lt. Col. Greg Moore, a Florida National Guard spokesman. The identities of the troops killed in the crash had not been released early Sunday.

The C-23 is the Army's only fixed-wing transport. It has a crew of three, can carry up to 30 troops and land on short, unpaved runways.

The Sherpa left Hurlburt Field, near Fort Walton Beach, Florida, and was headed to Oceana Naval Air Station in Virginia Beach, Virginia. It was carrying members of the 203rd Redhorse Flight, Virginia Air National Guard construction unit.

The unit is a rapid construction and repair unit that can deploy to set up bases and build living quarters, outbuildings and even runways in a very short period of time.

Debbie Magaldi, public affairs officer for the Virginia Air National Guard, said the Redhorse unit had been in Florida for its annual field training for the past two weeks.

A C-23 Sherpa National Guard plane, like the one pictured in this army photo, crashed near Unadilla, Georgia, on Saturday morning  

Florida National Guard spokesman Jon Myatt said the three crew members on the flight were from Detachment 1 of the 171st Aviation Regiment out of Lakeland, Florida.

Investigators from the National Transportation Safety Board, the Federal Aviation Administration and the Army's aviation safety center at Fort Rucker, Alabama, are looking into the cause of the crash.

Maj. Gen. Ronald O. Harrison, adjutant general of the Florida Air and Army National Guard, said the Sherpas have been in the Guard's inventory since 1997. He said Guard officials "do not have any idea" what caused the accident.

"I have flown on it many times," Harrison said. "It just does exactly what we need. It's good transportation, and we've had no difficulties at all with it."

CNN National Correspondent Mike Boettcher and Writer Greg Botelho contributed to this report.

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4:30pm ET, 4/16

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