The five – believed to be an Australian pilot and four US tourists heading to play golf on King Island – were on the plane when it appeared to suffer catastrophic engine failure moments after taking off from Essendon Airport on Tuesday morning.
The Beechcraft Super King Air twin-engine aircraft had issued a mayday before smashing into the Direct Factory Outlets in Essendon at around 9am, an hour before opening time.
Although staff were preparing to open stores, no one else was injured by the debris that scattered widely onto nearby freeways, or when the fireball that engulfed the plane burned through the stores and out into a carpark.
But many suffered shock in the aftermath as they searched frantically for colleagues.
No-one on the plane survived the crash and intense fire.
“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,” Police assistant commissioner Stephen Leane said.
Ash Mayer, a storeman at The Good Guys, felt the crash reverberate through his building.
“We were just coming off the off-ramp, we felt just everything shake and a massive explosion and a fireball go up,” he said.
“We just knew this was bad and there was nothing we could do.
“One of the boys actually saw it go down and he’s now left because he can’t deal with it.”
Eyewitness account c/o @abcmelbourne on #Essendon crash “There was a massive fireball, I could feel the heat through the window of the car.” pic.twitter.com/WuatknIXk7
— ABC News 24 (@ABCNews24) February 20, 2017
The plane, owned by Myjet, had been hired by Corporate and Leisure Travel, a company owned by Max Quartermain, who is believed to have been the pilot.
CEO of Australian Corporate Jets Bas Nikolovski says Quartermain is an experienced pilot.
“It has smashed me for six, and I am a softie at the best of times,” he said of hearing of the accident.
The US embassy was unable to confirm any details about the identities or nationalities of the victims but extended its deepest condolences to their families and loved ones.
The US consulate in Melbourne is working with local authorities who were reluctant to confirm who was on the plane as family members were being contacted.
Craig Lapsley, Emergency Management Commissioner, said witnesses had been treated for shock and trauma.
Essendon Airport was closed, the DFO building is being investigated for structural flaws and the freeways around the crash site were partly closed due to debris from the crash.
The outlet won’t reopen until Wednesday.
The Australian Transport Safety Bureau has taken over the investigation.
It’s the worst aviation crash in Victoria since 1978 when a light plane crashed into an Airport West home, killing six people.
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