DALLAS (AP) — Four American tourists were pursuing their passion for golf during a weekslong trip to Australia when they were killed Tuesday after a light plane carrying them on an offshore excursion crashed into a suburban Melbourne shopping mall and burst into flames, said Australian officials and a family member of one victim.
The twin-engine Beechcraft Super King Air crashed about 45 minutes before the Direct Factory Outlet mall in Essendon was due to open, Police Minister Lisa Neville said. The Australian pilot also was killed.
The U.S. Embassy in Canberra confirmed that the four victims besides the pilot were U.S. citizens. Three lived in Texas and it’s believed the fourth passenger on the plane did as well.
The pilot was Max Quartermain, owner of the charter company Corporate and Leisure Travel.
Three of the passengers were identified as Greg Reynolds De Haven, Russell Munsch and Glenn Garland, who all lived in the Austin, Texas, area.
De Haven’s sister, Denelle Wicht of Alexandria, Minnesota, said her brother survived dangerous work in the FBI and while serving in the U.S. Army during Vietnam only to die while enjoying retirement.
“He managed to get through all of that, to die this way,” Wicht told The Associated Press.
She said the 70-year-old De Haven was “extremely athletic” and at one time aspired to become a pro golfer, but his young family at the time came first. After he retired, De Haven went on the senior pro golf circuit.
De Haven and his wife were part of a larger group that included at least two other couples who were touring Australia over the course of three weeks and intended to also see New Zealand, Wicht said.
She earlier told KXAN-TV in Austin that the men had chartered the flight for a round of golf on an offshore island. Their wives had stayed behind to pursue other interests.
Munsch was a founding partner in the Texas law firm of Munsch Hardt, which said in a statement Tuesday that he litigated some of the most prominent bankruptcy cases in the U.S., including the 2001 bankruptcy proceedings for Houston-based Enron Corp., one of the largest energy companies in the world before its collapse. He would have turned 62 on Wednesday.
“He could take something that’s exceedingly complicated and boil it down and present it in a very simple way in court that was easy to understand,” Rick Kopf, another founding partner of the firm, told the AP.
Meanwhile, an energy consulting firm in Austin confirmed that Garland, a former CEO and co-founder of the company, was also a victim in the crash. Garland was one of the founders in 2003 of CLEAResult and served as chief executive before retiring in 2015.
In a statement Tuesday, CLEAResult co-founder Jim Stimmel described Garland as a “visionary” when it came to finding efficiencies in producing and providing energy.
White House spokesman Sean Spicer said at a briefing Tuesday that President Donald Trump’s “thoughts and prayers are with the families of the victims” and that U.S. Embassy and Consulate officials will provide assistance as the investigation progresses.
The plane had just taken off from Melbourne’s second-biggest airport at Essendon for a golfing trip to King Island, 255 kilometers (160 miles) to the south, when it crashed into the adjoining mall, officials said.
Police Assistant Commissioner Stephen Leane said no one outside the plane was injured.
“Looking at the fireball, it is incredibly lucky that no one was at the back of those stores or in the car park of the stores (and) that no one was even hurt,” Leane said.
The pilot reported a “catastrophic engine failure” moments before the plane crashed into a storage area at the rear of the mall, police said.
Police and paramedics rushed to the crash site, where firefighters doused the flames.
A witness who gave his name as Jason told Australian Broadcasting Corp. he was passing the mall in a taxi when the plane crashed.
“I saw this plane coming in really low and fast. I couldn’t see the impact but when it hit the building there was a massive fireball,” he said.
“I could feel the heat through the window of the taxi, and then a wheel — it looked like a plane wheel — bounced on the road and hit the front of the taxi as we were driving along,” he said.
Associated Press writer Jeff Baenen in Minneapolis contributed to this report.