ST. LOUIS – Investigators said Sunday that engine failure apparently caused a plane carrying skydivers to nosedive soon after takeoff, killing six people, including a man who was a member of the U.S. Parachute Team and had made thousands of jumps.
A witness to the crash, which also left two others badly injured, saw the airplane's right engine burst into flames shortly after it took off Saturday afternoon, said Ed Malinowski, a National Transportation Safety Board investigator.
A preliminary report on the crash won't be ready until Monday and a final report is expected to take at least six months, he said.
Witnesses told police that the plane, a DeHavilland DHC-6 Twin Otter, sounded as though it had engine trouble soon after taking off from the airport in Sullivan, about 70 miles southwest of St. Louis.
Lisa Whitaker, 41, said she was lounging in her father's pool when she heard the plane's engines overhead. When the engines went silent, Whitaker looked skyward to see the aircraft speeding toward her over the nearby trees.
"It was gliding. There was no noise going when it came down," she said. "I was thinking 'This is a heck of a way to die."'
The plane hit a tree, then crashed nose down about 20 yards away from Whitaker — about 10 feet from a neighboring home.
No one on the ground was hurt.
The victims included Scott Cowan, who along with his brother Jim, owned Quantum Leap Skydiving Inc. The Sullivan-based company's plane took off about 2 p.m. Saturday and crashed moments later. Scott Cowan was piloting the plane, officials said.
The Cowan brothers had more than 13,000 jumps between them, and both were members of the U.S. Parachute Team that won four world championships and several national skydiving championships since 1990, according to the company's Web site.
Cowan, 42, and three passengers died at the scene. Two died later Saturday in a St. Louis hospital, where two others were still hospitalized Sunday.
Several people affiliated with the company declined interview requests but said the company had a good safety record.