The twin-engine Piper Navajo came down not long after take-off from an airfield near the central Polish town of Czestochowa, slamming into the ground and catching fire. Some of the passengers survived the impact but died when flames engulfed the wreck.
One man, who was one of three thrown clear of the wreckage, survived but remains in intensive care. Doctors reported he suffered multiple injuries to his spine, arms, ribs and lungs but is in a stable condition.
Tomasz Ozimek, from the local prosecutor’s office, said the investigation into the causes of the tragedy will focus on three possibilities: engine failure, pilot error and the organisation of the parachute jump
Eyewitnesses reported that the aircraft’s engine was making a strange “droning” noise as the plane skimmed roof tops in the village of Topolow before hitting the ground less than two miles from the airfield. The high temperature on Saturday may have contributed to the engine overheating.
There were also reports that the Piper, which was operated by a local parachute school, was overloaded but officials confirmed it had a licence to carry 12 people. The school also had touted the plane as “the only such aircraft in Poland” because it had undergone a recent conversion to make it suitable for parachute jumps.
As investigators searched for the reasons behind the crash, those who were first on the scene have given grim details on the frantic efforts to save the trapped passengers.
A retired fireman, referred to only by his first name Zdzislaw, had already helped pull one parachutist clear when he went back to save others.
“There was another person inside the plane. I tried to save him by pulling him out but the fire, the temperature and smoke made it impossible,” he told Polish television. “I had this person in my hands, he was on fire but then there was another explosion and there was nothing I could do. Another person was calling for help but their parachute was caught in the wreckage, and I just couldn’t get him out.”
Asked whether he felt like a hero for efforts at the crash-site, the former fireman replied: “Maybe I would feel a hero if I had managed to save more than one.”
Roman Koziol, another of those involved in the rescue attempts, said “we could see people trapped in wreckage but we just couldn’t get them out: everything was on fire, even the earth.
“It’s terrible when all you can do it watch,” he added.
His testimony along with those of other eyewitnesses indicate that some of the parachutists had tried to leap from the stricken aircraft but did not have enough time or altitude to jump to safety.
Prosecutors said the ferocity of the blaze meant that it could take days to identify the victims, and families of the dead parachutists have been requested to submit “genetic material” to aid the identification process.
Mr Ozimek said the burnt remains of the aircraft will stay in place for the next two days while the investigation continues.