Atlanta plane crash victims were heading to college graduation

ATLANTA -- Plans for a family graduation celebration turned tragic when a small plane crashed onto a busy Atlanta interstate Friday morning, killing all four people on board.

Right after taking off from DeKalb Peachtree Airport, the pilot radioed the tower that he was having trouble climbing. Then he said: "Going down."

Private plane crashes into Atlanta highway

Motorists on Interstate 285 said they saw the plane 25 feet in the air -- and struggling. Cell phone video showed the fireball that erupted after it slammed into the median.

Gerald Smith saw the plane head right for the semi he was driving.

"It's like it was coming directly in my windshield," Smith told CBS News. "So I hit the brakes and by that time the plane came directly across my hood."

It grazed Smith's truck moments before crashing.

"Made my way out the truck to see if I could help," Smith said. "By the time I got over there it was blazed up so bad, there wasn't nothing anybody could do."

The plane was a Piper PA-32, which seats six.

Greg Byrd, his sons, Phillip and Christopher, and Jackie Kulzer, Christopher's fiancée, were heading to Ole Miss to see another of Greg's sons, Robert, graduate on Saturday.

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Undated photos of Greg Byrd, his sons Phillip and Christopher, and Christopher's fiancee Jackie Kulzer. The four were killed in a small plane crash Friday, May 8, 2015, in Atlanta, Georgia. CBS News

What went wrong is still unclear.

"Right now, FAA and representatives of NTSB are here on the scene," DeKalb Fire Capt. Eric Johnson said. "They're taking a look at the scene and all the parts and everything that went into just how this plane crashed."

DeKalb Peachtree Airport lies in a crowded residential and commercial area. For a pilot in trouble taking off, the highway is one of the only options.

  • Mark Strassmann
    Mark Strassmann

    Mark Strassmann has been a CBS News correspondent since January 2001 and is based in the Atlanta bureau.