A twin-engine plane crashed in the heart of this resort town Monday, killing all four people aboard and setting fire to a building near the main drag of tourist nightclubs, theaters and music halls.
The Piper Seneca crashed into a self-storage complex, about 200 feet from the busy street, near a Ripley's Believe it or Not Museum, a pair of motels and a string of musical theaters bearing the names of such entertainers as Andy Williams and Bobby Vinton.
"The plane shook my house when it hit," said Mike Willett, who lives alongside the AAA Self Storage Inns he manages. The plane, with its fuel tanks filled just before takeoff, struck the corner of a building of 32 storage units and quickly caught fire, destroying the building.
Terry Ware, office manager for a plumbing company that sits near the property, said she heard the plane going over her office and sounding as if it had serious engine trouble.
"My boss saw it in the air, and he said it was making some very erratic movements," she said. After it crashed, she ran to the site and got within 20 feet of the wreckage, which was only partly on fire.
"You could hear the people screaming," she said. "You couldn't get close enough to help them before the fuel went off."
Police Chief Caroll McCulough said there was no way to tell if the pilot deliberately avoided the bustling strip that was packed with midday vehicle traffic, despite Branson being two weeks away from the start of its most active season.
Federal investigators were to comb through the wreckage Tuesday for clues. Local authorities said there may be indications of how the pilot acted in his radio communications when he reported mechanical troubles.
The Federal Aviation Administration said the plane crashed about 12:30 p.m., about 15 minutes after taking off from Taney County Airport in Point Lookout, Mo., on a planned flight to Lubbock, Texas.
The victims were identified as Paul Johnson, 71, a Lubbock dentist who was believed be flying the plane, his wife, Marcia Johnson, 71, and another Lubbock couple, Betty Roach, 80, and her husband, Bill Roach, for whom no age was available.
Taney County Coroner Kevin Tweedy said the two couples had been vacationing in the area. He had not heard reports of screaming and said it was unlikely the passengers were still alive.
"It's almost certain they died instantly because of the severity of the impact," he said.
Both Willett and Ware said they heard what sounded like gunfire following one of the explosions and said it was probably ammunition going off in one of the storage units.
"The storage units held a whole lot of material that is combustible and the fuel spread so the fire went up," Fire Chief Ted Martin said.
At least one storage unit, about 50-by-100 feet, was charred. The tail of the plane lay alone on the ground, the only part that could be seen on a short tour led by fire officials. The entire storage building was blackened, with white and gray smoke rising from the wreckage and the contents spread all over the ground.
Skies in the area were overcast, but there were no storms or unusual weather at the time of the crash, the National Weather Service said.
Branson is about 185 miles southeast of Kansas City.