BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (AP) - Federal investigators found no initial evidence that a UPS cargo jet suffered engine failure or was burning before it clipped trees at the end of a runway and slammed into a hillside, killing the two crew members onboard, officials said Thursday.
UPS on Thursday night identified the victims as Capt. Cerea Beal, Jr., 58, of Matthews, N.C. and First Officer Shanda Fanning, 37, of Lynchburg, Tenn. In an email, the company said the Jefferson County, Ala., medical examiner had confirmed their identities.
A former Marine helicopter pilot, Beal had been with UPS since 1990. Fanning, described by UPS as an aviation enthusiast who was active and well-known in Lynchburg, had worked with the company since 2006.
Robert Sumwalt, a member of the National Transportation Safety Board, said during a news conference that the findings were only preliminary, and investigators hope to get additional evidence from data and voice recorders that were pulled from the plane's burned-out tail section earlier in the day.
"They were blackened and sooted," he said of the recorders, one of which captures voices in the cockpit and the other that records flight information about the plane's operation. "We are cautiously optimistic that we will be able to obtain good data."
The twin-engine A300 bound for Birmingham from Louisville, Ky., was attempting to land on a 7,000-foot-long runway at Birmingham Shuttlesworth International Airport when it crashed before dawn Wednesday. Sumwalt said the airport's other, 12,000-foot runway was shut down for repair work on its lights at the time.
Pilots are forced to navigate over a large hill to reach the shorter runway, and the plane clipped trees in a neighborhood before plummeting into the ground well short of the landing area.
Sumwalt said there was no indication of problems with the lights on the runway where the jet attempted to land, but investigators did find pieces of wood from trees inside an engine, plus dirt.
Investigators are still analyzing the debris, he said.
"We're just in the very beginning stages of the investigation," he said.
One of the investigators' tasks will be to determine why the plane was low enough to hit trees. The impact sheared off pieces of the aircraft and sent them crashing onto two homes along with large pieces of limbs.
Residents who live near the airport said they have worried for years about the possibility of a plane crash.
The plane went down in a rolling field where a neighborhood stood until airport officials began buying up homes and razing them to clear the area near the end of the runway. Cornelius and Barbara Benson, whose trees were hit by the plane, said they haven't received a buyout offer but hope that will now change.
The jet clipped trees around the Bensons' yard, leaving broken plastic and twisted metal on the ground.
Other neighbors reported seeing flames coming from the aircraft and hearing its engines struggle in the final moments before impact. Sumwalt didn't address whether flames could have erupted after the plane struck trees but while still airborne.