Fire-Rescue Division Chief John San Angelo said the Piper Navajo, a twin-engine turboprop, began experiencing engine trouble shortly after taking off from Fort Lauderdale Executive Airport at about 4:30 p.m.
The plane tried to turn around and make an emergency landing, but it didn't make it back to the airport, he said. The plane hit a tree and a fence as it crashed into a parking lot, part of a busy industrial area near blocks of tightly packed warehouses and stores.
The victims' names weren't immediately available. Seven cars and a boat caught fire.
"It looks like a junk yard that burned up," said Matt Little, a spokesman for Fort Lauderdale fire and rescue.
Terry Knowles, owner of R.J. Asset Recovery, said he and another one of his employees were in the repossessed auto lot when the plane crashed.
"I was working on a car, and I heard the engine behind me. I turned around and saw the plane coming right over the building in front of me," he said.
Knowles said the plane appeared to be banking around to head back to the airport, but it just couldn't get the lift.
"It hit the ground and exploded," Knowles said. "It was an instantaneous fireball."
Knowles said he yelled to check on his employee, who had been on the other side of the lot, and the two opened a gate for the presumed arrival of firefighters.
Rick Blackburn was outside working on a race car when he saw the plane tilting sideways in the air as it rapidly descended down. "It dropped like a rock. Boom!" he said.
"The plane hit really hard. We knew the pilot hadn't survived. It was too intense of an impact," said the 55-year-old Blackburn.
He took video with his phone as flames devoured a row of cars, thick blankets of black smoke billowing out.
"It was a ball of flames," he said.
Blackburn said it was immediately clear to those who ran over to help that "it was over." The heat coming from the blaze was intense, he said.
"There were a lot of explosions going off at first. Pop, pop, pop," he said.
About 40 firefighters were at the scene. San Angelo said smoke and the flames were so heavy that when firefighters first arrived, they couldn't tell where the plane was.
Television images showed heavy black smoke rising from the crash scene. Later video footage show a parking lot with vehicles in a corner that were burned-out shells, a smoldering heap covered in foam spread by firefighters on the scene. The cars were by a chain-link fence, and a building on the other side was streaked with black.
A storage facility and an indoor go-kart track are among the businesses listed nearby.
The airport serves smaller planes rather than the larger commercial flights at Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport.
The crash happened at the start of rush hour alongside Interstate 95, the major north-south route along Florida's Atlantic coast. It's also near Fort Lauderdale Stadium, where the New York Yankees and Baltimore Orioles once held spring training, and Lockhart Stadium, where the defunct Fort Lauderdale Strikers and Miami Fusion soccer teams played.
Fort Lauderdale Mayor Jack Seiler said he's amazed no buildings were damaged.
"It's a terrible scene. It's the scene of a tragedy," he said after walking through the wreckage.
National Transportation Safety Board spokesman Keith Holloway said an investigator should arrive in Fort Lauderdale by Saturday.
There have been several other high-profile crashes at Fort Lauderdale Executive Airport over the last decade:
- In 2009, an 80-year-old pilot died when he crashed his small plane into a home shortly after takeoff. Nobody was in the home, which was destroyed.
- In 2007, a small cargo plane crashed onto I-95 after takeoff. The pilot suffered serious injuries but survived. No one on the highway was hurt.
- Also in 2007, a small plane that had taken off from the airport crashed into the ocean while on its way to the Bahamas. Five people died.
- In 2005, a World War II-era cargo plane crashed into a neighborhood after a mechanical failure. The pilot was able to steer the plane into a street - six cars were destroyed as the plane skidded 100 yards but the three crew members survived and no homes were struck.
- In 2004, two people onboard a small plane died when it struck an auto body shop shortly after takeoff. No one on the ground was hurt.
Friday evening, repossession lot owner Knowles said six of the destroyed vehicles were repos, while the seventh was his own truck. His boat, mud buggy and camper were also destroyed. Several other vehicles sustained lesser fire damage.
"Luckily it was just a bunch of property damage," Knowles said. "Things can be replaced. People can't, unfortunately for the people on the plane."
Associated Press writer David Fischer contributed to this report from Miami.