MELBOURNE, Australia -- An Australian pilot and four American tourists on a golfing vacation were killed when a light plane crashed in flames into a shopping mall on Tuesday shortly after taking off in the Australian city of Melbourne, officials said.
The five were on a twin-engine Beechcraft Super King Air that crashed about 45 minutes before the Direct Factory Outlet mall in suburban Essendon was to open, Police Minister Lisa Neville said.
The U.S. Embassy in Canberra confirmed that four victims were U.S. citizens, and extended sympathy to their families in a statement.
“The U.S. Embassy in Canberra and U.S. Consulate in Melbourne are working closely with local authorities. We stand ready to provide all appropriate consular assistance to the families of the victims,” an embassy spokesperson told CBS News.
Texans Greg Reynolds De Haven and Russell Munsch have been identified by their families on social media as two of the victims.
De Haven’s sister, Denelle Wicht, posted on Facebook that her 70-year-old brother had been killed “on a once in a lifetime trip to Australia” with friends.
The pilot was Max Quartermain, owner of the charter company Corporate and Leisure Travel.
The plane had taken off from Melbourne’s second-biggest airport, at Essendon, for a golfing trip to King Island, 160 miles to the south, officials said.
The mall adjoins the airport.
Police Assistant Commissioner Stephen Leane said no one outside the plane was injured.
“Looking at the fireball, it is incredibly lucky that no one was at the back of those stores or in the car park of the stores, that no one was even hurt,” Leane said.
The pilot reported a “catastrophic engine failure” moments before the plane crashed into a storage area at the rear of the mall, police said.
The Reuters news agency cites authorities as saying the pilot called “Mayday” and tried to turn back to the airport before the crash landing.
Police and paramedics rushed to the crash site, where firefighters doused the flames.
“As soon as it happened within a couple of minutes, fire brigade, aviation, I think police were on scene and yeah, they got here really quick and everything has been blocked off. Yeah, it’s just been chaos, pretty much,” a witness told Reuters.
A witness who gave his name as Jason told Australian Broadcasting Corp. he was passing the mall in a taxi when the plane crashed.
“I saw this plane coming in really low and fast. 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,” he said.