A single-engine plane bound for Oconee County Regional Airport broke up in flight before it spiraled down and crashed near Westminster, killing four people from Indiana, the National Transportation Safety Board said in a preliminary accident report.
A witness reported hearing a loud boom, followed by white pieces of debris falling into Lake Hartwell, the NTSB report said.
The four Indiana residents were on their way to see the Clemson University-Notre Dame football game in Clemson earlier this month.
The crash killed a championship-winning sprint car driver, two former high school football coaches, one of whom was a city councilman, and an attorney who was the councilman's son.
All four lived in Warsaw, Indiana, southeast of South Bend.
It wasn't known how long it would take for the NTSB to establish a probable cause for the crash. Agency officials couldn't be reached for comment Monday, a federal holiday celebrating Columbus Day. The NTSB is an independent federal agency.
On Oct. 2, about 3:12 p.m., a Piper PA-32R-301 crashed following an in-flight breakup near Westminster, the NTSB said.
The private pilot and three passengers were fatally injured and the airplane was destroyed by the forces of impact, investigators said in the agency's report.
The airplane was registered to Smith Family Aviation LLC and operated by the pilot, Charles D. Smith, as a personal flight, the report said.
Instrument meteorological conditions existed at the time of the accident, and an instrument flight rules, or IFR, flight plan was filed, the report said. The flight originated from Warsaw Municipal Airport in Warsaw, Indiana, and was headed to Oconee County Regional Airport.
According to preliminary information provided by the Federal Aviation Administration, the airplane was at 6,000 feet and the pilot had been cleared by a controller for his approach to the Oconee airport, the NTSB report said.
The controller subsequently queried the pilot when he didn't report he was inbound on the approach. No response was received and radar contact was lost over Lake Hartwell, on the Georgia-South Carolina border, at about 2,200 feet, the report said.
Local residents reported hearing and seeing the airplane prior to the accident and one witness heard a loud boom, followed by white pieces of debris falling into the lake, investigators said in the report.
Another witness saw the airplane descending vertically, in a spiral motion, until it disappeared behind a tree line.
Another witness reported the engine was running until the airplane hit the ground. Several witnesses called 911 and first responders located the wreckage shortly afterward.
The main wreckage was found inverted in a wooded area, about 50 yards north of the shoreline of Lake Hartwell, near Westminster. Damage to trees indicated a near-vertical descent angle at impact, the NTSB report said.
There was no fire. The main wreckage consisted of the main cabin, cockpit, engine, propeller, left wing, and part of the right wing. About 10 percent of the tail assembly was recovered near the lake's south shoreline near Toccoa, Georgia, the report said.
When the NTSB report was released, the remainder of the right wing and the rest of the tail assembly hadn't been located.
Oconee County Coroner Karl Addis identified the men as: Smith, 71; his son, Scott A. Smith, 44; Tony L. Elliott, 54; and Scott D. Bibler, 51.
There were no survivors.
Charles Smith held a private pilot certificate and had an instrument airplane rating, according to the NTSB. He reported 1,448 hours total flight time on his most recent application for a FAA third-class medical certificate, dated Oct. 17, 2013, the agency's report said.
Conditions around the Oconee airport were "dismal" at the time of the crash, an airport official has said.
Scott Smith was in the front passenger seat. Elliott was a rear passenger. Bibler's seat was unknown, Addis said.
Elliott was a champion race car driver who won the U.S. Auto Club national sprint car series in 1998 and 2000.
Charles Smith and his son were devoted Notre Dame and Green Bay Packers football fans who flew from coast to coast to watch their teams play, said Joe Thallemer, mayor of Warsaw, a city of about 14,000.
Charles Smith was a retired banker and a Warsaw council member. He taught for 16 years, started Tippecanoe Valley High School's football program in 1975 and led the team to a state championship in 1979.
Scott Smith graduated from Tippecanoe Valley High and returned to practice law in the city, where he also was deputy prosecuting attorney for three counties.
Bibler also was a member of Smith's 1979 state championship football team and a former Tippecanoe Valley football coach who taught for 25 years, according to the local news site inkfreenews.com.