An Emery Worldwide cargo plane crashed into an auto salvage yard Wednesday night after taking off from a Sacramento-area airport, killing all three crew members aboard.
The crash of the DC-8 transport service plane created a spectacular series of explosions as more than 100 cars burst into flames.
The plane took off from the former Mather Air Force Base at 7:52 p.m. bound for Dayton, Ohio, said Lou Padgug, airport operations officer for Sacramento International Airport. The base was decommissioned about a decade ago and is now a cargo and general aviation airport operated by Sacramento County.
Shortly after takeoff, the pilot called the airfield's departure control and reported a problem.
"Right before the crash, the pilot said the plane had a center of gravity problem," Padgug said. "This means there was some kind of imbalance and he was having problems controlling the aircraft. On a plane like this, you load the cargo so the weight is distributed. You don't want too much in back or in front. The pilot might have felt the weight was not evened out."
Capt. Dan Haverty of the American River Fire Department said the pilot informed departure control that he had a problem with "unsettled cargo."
The plane was carrying automatic transmission fluid, clothing and small amounts of "detonating explosives," Haverty said.
From 100 to 200 cars, some with gasoline in their tanks, were set ablaze by the crash about one mile east of the airport, Haverty said. Throughout the night, there were small explosions in the salvage yards near the crash site.
Scattered pockets of flames dotted a five-acre site in an industrial area of Rancho Cordova, about 10 miles east of downtown Sacramento. Plumes of smoke from melting tires and plastic auto parts filled the air.
Firefighters on the ground and in helicopters tried to douse the scattered fires, but smoke was still billowing into the night sky several hours after the crash. There were no reports of injuries on the ground.
Lee Elrod, who owns a business in Rancho Cordova, said he ran out of his building after the windows starting rattling.
"I saw the pilot try to pull up four times," Elrod said. "He'd get to about 2,000-3,000 feet and drop again. Finally it was making a left bank and just dropped to the ground and exploded."
Ernie Killinger was standing nearby when he saw the plane drop from the sky.
"When it hit there was a huge explosion, and the fuselage came shooting out of the fireball," Killinger said. "The pilot looked to me that he was trying to flatten it out and land it in all that mess. He tried to flatten it out and lay it on its belly."
A number of large air cargo companies use Mather Airport, including Airborne Express and UPS, airport officials said. Emery has one flight a day out of Mather.
The crash scene was just off Sunrise Boulevard, a busy thoroughfare during rush hour traffic.