updated 1/31/2009 3:52:54 PM ET 2009-01-31T20:52:54

Federal officials said Saturday a small plane struggled to stay on course in snowy weather and its pilot reported being low on fuel before it crashed in West Virginia, killing all six on board.

The twin-engine Piper PA-34’s pilot issued a mayday call on the radio Friday afternoon reporting it was low on fuel shortly before witnesses said it struck a power line and crashed in a wooded area near the Ohio and Kentucky state lines.

The plane was destroyed, National Transportation Safety Board investigator Brian Rayner said. The engines were separated from the wings, which were broken in several places. The cockpit area was severely deformed and a cable was entangled in the wreckage.

Investigators have not identified any of the plane’s occupants, nor determined the flight’s origin or destination. Rayner said only that the plane’s intended destination was not the nearby Tri-State Airport in Kenova, where it was trying to land.

The airport’s control tower was in contact with the pilot about 15 minutes before the crash, said Kevin Price, the airport’s fire chief and director of operations. The tower was “struggling with the pilot to maintain course alignment” before it crashed, Rayner said.

Price said it was also snowing at the time, causing poor visibility, but it’s not yet known if weather contributed to the crash. An official report on the cause won’t be released for about a year.

'Flying way too low'
Officials initially said three people had died in the crash, but later revised the death toll to six. The three additional bodies were found tangled in the wreckage. Officials were waiting for positive identification from the state medical examiner’s office.

Witness Chris Smith was outside with his daughter when he saw the plane go down.

“It was flying way too low,” he told The Herald Dispatch of Huntington. “It was flying so low I could have thrown a rock up and hit the bottom of the plane.”

Smith’s wife, Amanda, said she heard a loud crash and saw nearby power lines shake. Then the lights went out.

“My husband ran in with my daughter because they were sleigh riding and said, ’Call 911. A plane crashed,”’ Smith told the newspaper.

Appalachian Power confirmed the plane hit a transmission line, but spokesman Phil Moye said power to the area was only briefly affected.

The plane is registered to Wilmington, Del.-based Wesvin Inc.

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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