MELBOURNE, Australia -- Five people were believed killed when a light plane crashed in flames into a shopping mall on Tuesday 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 would not comment on a report that the passengers were U.S. citizens, but said it was working with local authorities.
“We extend our deepest condolences to the families and loved ones of all those who died in today’s tragic crash,” an embassy statement said.
“We are unable to confirm any details about the nationality or identity of any of the victims. The U.S. Embassy in Canberra and the consulate in Melbourne are working closely with local authorities to assist in any way possible,” it said.
Police Assistant Commissioner Stephen Leane also declined to say whether the four passengers were Americans.
The plane had taken off from Melbourne’s second-biggest airport at Essendon on a chartered flight to King Island, 160 miles to the south, officials said.
The mall adjoins the airport.
Leane said it appeared that no one aboard the plane had survived. No one on the ground 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.
A pilot reported a “catastrophic engine failure” moments before the plane crashed into a storage area at the rear of the mall, police said.
Police and paramedics rushed to the crash site, where firefighters doused the flames.
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.
Essendon Fields CEO, Chris Cowan, released a statement following the crash.
“Essendon Airport expresses its deepest condolences to the families of those tragically deceased in the incident this morning,” the statement said.
It said the airport is providing full cooperation with emergency services and investigators into the cause of the incident.
“At this stage, we can confirm the aircraft was involved in a routine departure from Runway 17 at 8.58am,” it said. “The Australian Transport Safety Bureau (ATSB) is investigating the incident.”