For a few desperate moments, there was a struggle to correct a crisis on board before the jet went down, in what may have been a final act of heroism.
Emery Worldwide Flight 17 took off at 7:50 p.m. and the pilot immediately called back to the airfield's departure control and told them the cargo had shifted and he had a severe problem with the balance of the aircraft, said Jim Whitehead, manager of the FAA's regional operations center in Los Angeles.
The plane, its balance disrupted, tried to return to Mather Field for an emergency landing. As the huge cargo plane turned back toward the airport it crashed in a fireball about a mile east of the field just before 8 p.m.
Don Johnson was flying his plan nearby and heard the distress call. "The pilot sounded stressed about his load. He wanted to get back to the airfield as soon as possible. The last signal that I heard from him was a mayday. And the radio went dead," he says.
One witness said the plane hit the ground belly first and was immediately surrounded by fire. Nobody on the ground was injured, but it could have been much worse.
The airplane went down in a sparsely populated industrial area, but not far away, there are hundreds of homes. Either chance or the pilot's final act brought the plane down where it would do the least harm.
The DC-8, bound for Dayton, Ohio, carried three crew members: the pilot, first captain and a flight engineer, all believed to be Emery employees, company spokesman James Allen.
The crew members, whose identities were not immediately released, were dead by the time fire crews arrived, said American River Fire Capt. Dan Haverty.
"There was no chance of rescue," he said.
Firefighters were hampered by intense flames, which burned for several hours after the crash. Smoke was visible in the moonlit night several miles away.
The crash at the Insurance Auto Auctions salvage yard set as many as 200 cars on fire, many with gas in their tanks, causing several explosions.
Debris cut a swath about 250 yards wide and a quarter mile long. Firefighters worked into the night extinguishing scattered flames. Debris from the plane, including a 15-foot-long piece of the fuselage and a wheel assembly, was found scattered among the wrecked cars. Dozens of vehicles were crumpled.
Federal Aviation Administration investigators, a bomb squad, officials from the Sacramento County coroner's office and a hazardous materials team were among those who responded to the scene.
The McDonnell Douglas DC-8 has two engines mounted on each wing. The model went into service in 1959 and production ended in 1972.
Mather Field was once Mather Air Force Base, which was closed as a military operation in 1993. Since then, it has become a civilian airport and the region's air cargo hub. It is ocated about 10 miles east of Sacramento.
Emery, based in Redwood City, specializes in transportation services for business shippers of heavyweight cargo, the company says on its Web site. The $2.4-billion company is a subsidiary of CNF Inc., a $5.6-billion diversified transportation company based in Palo Alto, the site states.
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