CARROLLTON, Ga. -- Twenty-six of the 29 people aboard a Delta commuter airplane survived a fiery landing in a west Georgia hayfield yesterday after the plane apparently lost an engine in midflight.
The pilot, whom passengers and witnesses credited for the survival of so many, was one of two people killed immediately. A third died later in Erlinger Medical Center in Chattanooga, Tenn.
Survivors and law enforcement officials said the plane, operated by Atlantic Southeast Airlines, a commuter line that is partly owned by and feeds into Delta Air Lines, developed trouble in one of its twin turboprop engines less than a half-hour after taking off from Atlanta's Hartsfield International Airport on a 362-mile trip to Gulfport, Miss.
David Schneider, 28, a businessman from Herndon, Va., who survived the crash with cuts, bruises and singed hair, said he heard "a big bang" while dozing in midflight and looked out the window to see that the left propeller had been ripped apart. "The whole fuselage, parts of the metal were shredded out, and the propeller was stopped and kind of like lodged against the wing," he said.
A crash of the same type of aircraft, an Embraer 120, that killed 23 people in Georgia in April 1991, including former Sen. John Tower of Texas, was caused by the failure of a severely worn part in the propeller control unit of the plane, according to an investigation by the National Transportation Safety Board. That plane was also operated by Atlantic Southeast Airlines. That problem was said to have been corrected.
Mr. Schneider said that shortly before the crash at 1 p.m., a crew member had told the passengers that the plane was trying to return to Atlanta. But when the pilot realized the plane could not muster enough power to maintain altitude, he spotted Paul Butler's hayfield and headed for it, shearing off the tops of several tall pines before skidding to a stop.
Billy J. Jeter was watching television when he heard the "terrific roar" and looked out his back window to see the plane skidding across his brother-in-law's field next door.
"It was on the ground, broken in two, but still skidding," he said. "I could see people coming out. Some were still burning. Other passengers were putting out their fires with shirts and blankets."
Mr. Jeter and Mr. Butler described a horrific scene as firefighters and neighbors tried to free the plane's co-pilot, who was on fire and belted into his seat.
Firefighters managed to push a water hose through a side window but broke a fire ax while trying to smash out the windshield, they said. After another ax was found, they succeeded in breaking the windshield and pulled the burning co-pilot to safety. The pilot, who has not been identified by authorities, was dead in his seat.
Mr. Jeter, a retired Air Force mechanic, praised the pilot for a skillful emergency landing. "In my opinion, he saved a bunch of lives."
The crash, in the rural Burwell community, about five miles southwest of Carrollton, near the Alabama border, was the fifth accident this year of a U.S. registered commercial aircraft and at least the eighth crash of a commuter plane in the last five years, the National Transportation Safety Board said.
The plane involved in yesterday's crash, a Brazilian-made, twin-engine Embraer 120, is the second-most popular turboprop in the United States, with 219 in service, the Regional Airline Association said.
The National Transportation Safety Board will investigate the crash, but had no immediate comment. The airline, which is based in Atlanta, also had no comment.
Federal Aviation Administration officials said the pilot reported engine problems before the crash.
The wreckage lay in four pieces in Mr. Butler's field, the fuselage a hulk of twisted, melted, blackened metal. Skidmarks showed its path out of the trees and across several hundred yards of drought-hardened earth.
Those injured in the crash, many of whom walked from the scene without assistance and gave phone numbers of family members to neighbors, were initially taken to hospitals in Carrollton and the nearby town of Bowdon. Many were then airlifted to larger hospitals in Atlanta and Chattanooga that have specialized burn units. At least 10 are reported to be in critical condition. Officials declined to release the names and medical condition of the injured.