The twin-engine plane operated by Atlas Air Inc. crashed shortly before 12:45 p.m., the Federal Aviation Administration said. The FAA said contact was lost with the jet approximately 30 miles southeast of Houston George Bush Intercontinental Airport, and that the aircraft was flying from Miami to Houston.
Atlas Air Worldwide said in a statement that three people were on board Atlas Air flight 3591, and it was flying on behalf of the online retailer Amazon.
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"Everyone within the company is deeply saddened by this event," Atlas Air said. "Our main priority at this time is caring for those affected and we will ensure we do all we can to support them now and in the days and weeks to come."
Hawthorne told reporters earlier Saturday that the debris field is around three-quarters of a mile. "At this point, it's total devastation," he said at that time.
Witnesses who called police described the plane going down nose-first into the bay, Hawthorne said. The water goes from 5 feet deep to zero where it becomes a mud marsh, he said. "It's not going to be an easy recovery task for us to do," he said.
FAA spokesperson Lynn Lunsford said that FAA investigators were on their way to the accident site and the National Transportation Safety Board has been notified. The NTSB will be in charge of the investigation and said it was sending a team to investigate.
The sheriff's office said that the plane has been located in Jack's Pocket at the north end of Trinity Bay.
NTSB Chairman Robert Sumwalt said Saturday evening that preliminary information indicates "the aircraft was in what I would characterize as a normal descent, and at around 6,300 feet it began what I would characterize as a very, very rapid descent at that point."
There was a simultaneous loss of air traffic control radar contact and communications with the aircraft and pilots, Sumwalt said. A high priority in the investigation will be recovering the plane's black boxes, he said. The shallowness of the water could make that easier, he said.
Boeing said in a statement that "we are deeply saddened to learn of the Atlas Air 767 freighter that crashed near Anahuac, TX, earlier today" and that the company is prepared to offer technical assistance to the NTSB as it investigates the accident.
Hawthorne said that when he went to the crash site he saw floating debris that included bed sheets, women's clothing, cardboard boxes and fiberglass.
Dave Clark, senior vice president of worldwide operations at Amazon, said in a statement, "Our thoughts and prayers are with the flight crew, their families and friends along with the entire team at Atlas Air during this terrible tragedy."
Accounts from witnesses included those who described hearing "the surging of the engines" and others thought they were hearing lightning, but that appears to have been the plane, Hawthorne said.
"But there's no doubt he was having some kind of problem with the airplane, according to the eyewitnesses, and then it turned and went into a nosedive," the sheriff said.