Five people died after their plane crashed during takeoff from the Mediterranean archipelago of Malta early Monday, officials said.
A fireball belched black smoke from the runway of Malta International Airport and all departures and arrivals were cancelled until further notice.
The Fairchild Metroliner crashed at around 7:20 a.m. local time (1:20 a.m. ET) and witnesses interviewed by the Maltese government said there was no midair explosion before the aircraft slammed into the ground.
Edward De Gaetano, an actor from London, was on board another plane about to take off when he saw a “massive explosion and another explosion” outside his window.
“Once we found out a plane had crashed next to us, the panic started really to set in,” said De Gaetano, who had been on the island with his girlfriend for a friend’s wedding. “We couldn’t do anything, everyone tried to be as calm as possible. We had to stay put.”
He spoke with NBC News from the departure lounge after his plane was taken back to the terminal.
The Maltese government said the twin-propeller plane was part of a surveillance operation by French customs officials to track drug and human trafficking.
Malta sits along one of the main routes for migrants and refugees attempting the perilous sea journey between North Africa and Europe.
The government said all five killed were French nationals, and that the plane was registered in the U.S. and leased to a company in Luxembourg.
However, a spokeswoman for France’s customs department told NBC news that none of those killed were French customs officials. She could not immediately confirm whether the aircraft was being used by the agency.