ZEPHYRHILLS — A single-engine plane crashed into a swampy area in Pasco County on Friday night, killing the three people on board.
The plane, a Piper Malibu registered to Citrus Aviation Inc. of Lakeland, went down about 8:30 p.m. near U.S. 98, 2 to 3 miles north of County Road 54, Pasco Sheriff's Office officials said.
The plane was headed to Lakeland from Gainesville.
"Twenty miles north of Lakeland, the pilot declared an emergency," said Kathleen Bergen, an Federal Aviation Administration spokeswoman. Air traffic controllers redirected the pilot to the nearest airport, in Zephyrhills.
"They lost contact with the aircraft about 3 miles from the Zephyrhills airport," Bergen said.
After the plane went down, about 500 feet west of U.S. 98, a fire started.
U.S. 98, the two-lane highway nearest the scene, was lined with emergency vehicles whose flashing lights illuminated the bordering woods.
Emergency crews ran 350 feet of hose into the brush, which helped them put out the fire in about 90 minutes, said sheriff's Lt. Brett Landsberg.
By 11 p.m., they had to suspend the salvage operation because of the thick brush.
Landsberg said a deputy will remain at the scene all night to protect its integrity. Authorities intend to bring forestry officials to the scene this morning to help cut into the woods.
The FAA and the National Transportation Safety Board are investigating.
Officials did not release the names of the people killed in the crash.
Citrus Aviation is registered to Robert H. Stallings, according to the state Division of Corporations. Stallings is the owner of Stallings Crop Insurance, also based in Lakeland.