ASPEN, Colo. -- Investigators worked their way through a hillside littered with scorched wreckage on Friday and recovered the bodies of 18 people aboard a twin-engine jet that crashed as it approached this posh ski resort town.
The Gulfstream III, approaching landing on a flight from Burbank, Calif., rammed into the hillside Thursday night before diving across a culvert and striking another bluff just short of the runway.
Coroner's officials began removing the bodies of the victims before dawn Friday, police said. It could be two days before they are identified, Pitkin County Sheriff Bob Braudis said.
When asked whether any celebrities were aboard the plane, Braudis said he did not recognize any of the passengers' names on the flight manifest.
Arnold Scott of the National Transportation Safety Board said the cockpit voice recorder had been recovered. Before the crash, the plane's crew told controllers they had the runway in sight, he said, adding, "so what difficulties they had on the approach I really can't answer."
The crash sparked a giant fireball, witnesses said. Two dead passengers could be seen still strapped to their seats and one was sprawled on a hillside amid the wreckage.
"All of a sudden the plane came overhead and before anybody could say 'that plane is really low,' we heard a loud boom and saw a large fireball," Ron Harding told KCBS-TV in Los Angeles. "We saw debris scattered down one hillside and up the other hillside. There was fire every place.
"It was just a terrible scene," said Harding, a Riverside, Calif., resident who was driving to dinner with his wife and four other people when they witnessed the crash.
Fifteen passengers and three crew were on board, said Allen Kenitzer, a Federal Aviation Administration spokesman in Seattle. All 18 bodies were recovered, authorities said. The victims were not immediately identified.
Marc Foulkrod, president of Avjet Corp. in Burbank, Calif., which manages the jet for its owner, said Avjet caters to corporate clients and people in the entertainment industry but declined to say who was on the flight.
"We are in the process of notifying the families of these individuals," Foulkrod said. "Our deepest and most heartfelt concern goes out to all of the families."
Witnesses traveling along a highway near the crash said they were startled to see the low-flying plane make its way toward the airport.
Greg Reszel, a tourist from Indiana, told KCNC-TV the plane was traveling so slowly he thought it was a helicopter. He said it lurched and appeared to stall. Even before that, he told CBS' "The Early Show," he thought the visibility was so poor that he told his father, "Man, I wouldn't want to be trying to land that."
Al Kassa, who was traveling on the same road, told KCNC the plane was traveling about 50 feet over his car when it passed and then crashed.
"The noise was just so loud," he said. "And then I just saw it going straight into the ground at about a 30-degree angle, and then it just blew up. I've been in a state of shock for the last few hours."
The debris showed the plane lost its tail when it hit a hillside about 20 feet high. It fell apart as it plunged across a 200-foot culvert between the hill and the airport, then slammed into another bluff about 500 yards short of the runway.
The 1981 Gulfstream is registered to Airborne Charter Inc., according to the Federal Aviation Administration.
Foulkrod, whose company manages the jet for Airborne Charter, said it left from the Burbank airport, made a stop at Los Angeles International Airport, and then headed to Aspen. He said the owner, whom he wouldn't identify, was not on board.
The Los Angeles Times and Daily News of Los Angeles reported Friday that Airborne's president is Hollywood producer Andrew Vajna, whose film credits include Sylvester Stallone's "Rambo" movies," Bruce Willis' "Diehard With a Vengeance" and Arnold Schwarzenegger's "Total Recall."
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