ATLANTA (CNN) — Truck driver Gerald Smith glanced to his right and saw a small plane flying at him as he motored along one of Atlanta’s busiest highway sections Friday morning.
Smith hit the brakes, an action he thinks saved his life. The plane’s occupants couldn’t save their own.
The single-engine Piper PA-32 clipped the front of Smith’s tractor-trailer as it passed him and slammed into Interstate 285 just north of Atlanta, killing all four people aboard and severely snarling post-rush-hour traffic on the bypass that encircles the city, officials said.
No one on the ground was injured, DeKalb County Fire Department spokesman Capt. Eric Jackson said, even though the plane hit the highway shortly after rush hour, around 10 a.m.
“Whoever was in that plane, my heart goes out to their family,” Smith told CNN affiliate WSB. “Just a normal workday for me (is now) a day I’ll never forget, because somebody’s life was taken.”
The names of those aboard the plane — three males and one female — weren’t immediately released. The crash happened shortly after the craft left nearby DeKalb-Peachtree Airport, the Federal Aviation Administration said.
All lanes in both directions were temporarily closed at the crash site, causing massive traffic backups.
Witnesses said they saw the plane flying low before hitting the highway, creating a fireball that sent a thick plume of smoke into the air.
Smith told WSB that he was driving when he looked to his right and “saw a plane approaching me at a fast rate of speed (and) flying very low.”
He slammed on his brakes, something that didn’t stop the aircraft from hitting him — but an action that he thinks saved his life.
“It wasn’t any higher than the top of my truck,” Smith told WSB. “By the time I hit the brakes, I heard the impact on the front of my truck.”
After stopping, Smith saw the plane burning near the concrete barrier.
“If I would have stayed on the gas, I probably would have hit it head on,” he said.
Driving on nearby Peachtree Industrial Boulevard, Don McGee saw the plane nearly clip a red light. He turned onto the highway to see “large plume of black smoke (and) fire everywhere.”
“I ran across the field to see what was going on and see if I could help somebody, but it was gone by then, it was done,” McGee told WSB. “It was like a bomb being dropped or something.”
Siva Chamarthy also got out of his vehicle, but the intense heat stopped him in his tracks.
“I was thinking of the people inside (the plane), I couldn’t hear anything,” Chamarthy said, according to WSB. “It was so hot, I couldn’t go near them.”
The other, westbound side of the highway was affected as well, with Gabriel Hernandez telling WSB he had to switch lanes to avoid flaming debris in the lane closest to the median.
CNN’s Martin Savidge, Shawn Nottingham and Marylynn Ryan contributed to this report.