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'All of a sudden, it just flipped over'

Eyewitness Tommy Stacey described hearing a sputtering noise, then seeing the plane nose-dive into the ground.
Eyewitness Tommy Stacey described hearing a sputtering noise, then seeing the plane nose-dive into the ground.

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A commuter plane crashes upon takeoff into an airport hangar in Charlotte, North Carolina. (January 8)
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Airport director Jerry Orr says all 21 people on a commuter plane died when it crashed at Charlotte-Douglas International Airport. (January 8)
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CHARLOTTE, North Carolina (CNN) -- On a clear, cold and windy day at Charlotte-Douglas International Airport, Tommy Stacey was standing outside when he heard an unusual noise, shortly after a US Airways Express/Air Midwest commuter plane took off.

"I heard a sputtering noise -- something like a boat sputtering on the water," Stacey said. "I saw the plane going straight up into the air. And then all of a sudden, it just flipped over and started nose-diving straight into the ground."

The plane, bound for Greenville-Spartanburg International Airport in South Carolina 100 miles away, crashed Wednesday on takeoff into a hangar, killing all 19 passengers and two crew members.

Stacey said he heard a "loud explosion" when the plane hit and saw a ball of fire come up from behind the hangar.

Another witness, Randy Parker, described seeing the plane hit nose first and explode into a "huge fireball."

"It just disintegrated upon impact," Parker said.

Airport officials said the plane traveled 1,500 to 2,000 feet after takeoff and then veered to the left, into the hangar. An intense fire broke out, but firefighters quickly extinguished it.

David Isola, who was inside the Charlotte airport when the crash occurred, captured the scene on his video camera.

"I was in there doing interviews. We were talking to some people in there, and we heard a large boom," he said. "I had my camera for taking some pictures of some trucks and stuff out here, so I took it out there and just started filming."

Isola said he saw "a lot of smoke, a lot of fire." He said firefighters were spraying parts of the wreckage as well as cars in the parking lot to prevent the fire from spreading.

"There was a pretty intense cloud of black smoke, which, with the light wind that was here in Charlotte at the time, pretty much made its way a couple of miles across the city before the plane was extinguished." said traffic reporter Jim Slade.

The debris field from the crash was small, with wreckage scattered for about 100 feet, and the fuselage was intact, airport officials said.

"The plane is so destroyed there's really not much left to be able to see or to determine exactly what kind of aircraft it was," said Charlotte police spokesman Keith Bridges. "It's just a horrible sight."

Jonathan Ornstein, chairman of Mesa Airlines, the company that owned the plane, offered condolences.

"We clearly are deeply concerned about this event, about our crew and our passengers," Ornstein said. "I can only express our greatest sympathy, my personal sympathy, to all of those involved."

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