The ill-fated plane was supposed to be in the air 15 minutes for an avionics check.
Instead, it lost power shortly after liftoff and crashed east of Fort Lauderdale Executive Airport on Friday. Federal officials say a mechanical malfunction was likely to blame.
It also left the surrounding neighborhoods in fear.
"Imagine if it fell on top of Northeast High School?" former Oakland Park commissioner Suzanne Boisvenue said. "More needs to be done, but I don't think they're going to do anything until something huge and more catastrophic, like landing on top of a school and killing a bunch of kids, happens."
Witnesses said they saw the 1978 Piper Cheyenne turboprop make a steep right turn in an apparent attempt to return to the airport before plunging into an impound lot and bursting into flames, setting ablaze a boat and numerous repossessed cars.
On Saturday, federal air safety investigators said they would examine every aspect of the flight — from the plane's maintenance history to the pilot's emergency call to the control tower just before the 4:15 p.m. crash.
"We're in fact-gathering mode," said Luke Schiada, senior accident investigator for the National Transportation Safety Board. "We're not going to draw any conclusions or speculate."
Kimberly Waller says she knows one thing: Her husband of 16 years, pilot Steven Waller, wasn't the reason the plane went down.
"The plane fell from the friggin' sky," she said. "The plane was a piece of crap. Why that friggin' plane had a mechanical failure, I don't know."
Wally Watson had asked her husband, a charter pilot, to take the plane up for a 15-minute test flight, she said.
"Steve is an excellent pilot," she said. "He never took any chances."
According to Federal Aviation Administration records, Waller had earned an airline transport pilot rating and was qualified to fly several types of corporate jets.
The Watsons own the Avionics Engineering firm at Fort Lauderdale Executive Airport. The firm specializes in aircraft repairs and retrofit installations, according to the company website.
Prior to the accident, the Piper Cheyenne had been taken to Avionics Engineering to have radio work performed, airport sources say. The aircraft is registered to Miami Aviation Specialist Inc. of Fort Lauderdale, an airplane parts firm. No one at either company could be reached for comment.
Mary Lou Gallagher, president of a corporate flight attendant training company based at Fort Lauderdale Executive Airport, saw the plane flying low on Friday.
"All of a sudden, he crashed," she said. She and a friend tried to get near the plane to save the pilots ''but there was no way to get close. It was a wall of fire.''
On Saturday, investigators sifted through the mangled wreckage. The plane's fuselage was completely destroyed and parts, including the propellers, were strewn around the parking lot. A yellow loader was brought in to lift burned cars away from the impact area.
The wreckage is expected to be trucked to a nearby hangar for further inspection.
The NTSB plans to release a preliminary accident report in about a week, a more detailed report in six to eight months and a final "probable cause" ruling in about 18 months.
Family and friends of the three men shared their grief through postings on Facebook.
"This is a picture of the last time I was with my 2nd dad and little brother just yesterday 3-14-13 ... life will never be the same," Steven Zide wrote.
"No words can explain such a tragedy," Karen Longo Mauro wrote. "May God give them a better life in heaven."
Kevin Watson was president of Avionics Engineering and his father, Wally, was the firm's engineer and design consultant.
Kevin was engaged to Mindy Baer, and the two were heading to the altar in a week, a friend said. On Kevin's Facebook page were several photos of him posing with his 27-year-old fiance, clinking beers at a bar, embracing on a rooftop.
Ricky White says he and his friend Kevin both loved fast cars, bonding quickly over a passion for the Mitsubishi Eclipse turbo.
White said the last time he saw Kevin, they talked about White's fear of flying.
White told his friend he witnessed a small plane crash and burn in 2005, shortly after takeoff from Fort Lauderdale Executive Airport. It landed in the street and crashed into a tree, White said, but all three onboard survived.
"I told him, 'It's not like a car, where you're going to break down on the road. If there's a problem, you fall out of the sky,'" White recalled.
Kevin reassured him that planes were safe, White said.
"He told me he started working on planes when he was in the Air Force and that he's been doing it for years," White said. "He said a lot of the parts are redundant."
When White first heard about the crash Friday, he called Kevin's cellphone.
"It went straight to voicemail," White said. "So I drove by the hangar. It's crazy. He's just a good-hearted person. He didn't seem to have a care in the world."
Many who live and work near the airport said they tend to get immune to the overhead traffic and spend no time fretting over potential catastrophes.
"You don't think about," said Jay Wilson, a UPS driver who said he makes daily deliveries to the airport. "It happens though. It's unfortunate, but what can you do?"
David Tyndale works at Need A Tire Inc., less than a block from Friday's crash. He said he saw the black smoke and "knew it was something bad."
"I'm sorry about the fatalities, but it's the law of inevitability," Tyndale said. "What is going to happen is going to happen."
But there's a lot at stake, former commissioner Boisvenue said, with neighborhoods, hospitals and half a dozen schools in the area.
An Oakland Park house that suffered a direct hit from an April 2009 plane crash is barely a mile from Friday's crash site. All that remains are a mango tree, a tool shed and a 'No Trespassing' sign.
Sue Soares, who lives around the corner with her husband and 11-year-old daughter, said they remember the horrific crash every time they pass by.
"We felt it could be us," Soares said. "Now there's a second one near here? The frequency is not good. It really scares us."
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