A Denham Springs passenger and a Lafayette pilot were identified as the two men killed when a plane crashed at the Hammond airport Wednesday afternoon during takeoff on a business trip for Atlanta.

At a Thursday news conference, Hammond Mayor Pete Panepinto identified one of the crash victims as John Harris, an aircraft broker/manager from Denham Springs. Panepinto said the pilot was a charter pilot who worked for the company Harris had contacted for a business trip.

Family and friends identified the pilot as Desmond Milligan, of Lafayette, according to KATC-TV.

The Tangipahoa Parish Coroner’s Office conducted one of the two autopsies Thursday and must compile dental records information before confirming the identity of either victim, a coroner’s official said. Both autopsies are expected to be completed Friday.

A Federal Aviation Administration official reported Thursday that the pilot appeared to be trying to return to the runway when problems began.

“My initial information indicated that the aircraft was headed for Atlanta. It had just departed when the pilot declared an emergency and attempted to turn back to the field at Hammond,” said Lynn Lunsford, an FAA spokesman. “The plane crashed in the turn.”

National Transportation Safety Board Senior Air Safety Investigator John Brannen reported Thursday afternoon that the plane was in Hammond to pick up a passenger for a business trip to Atlanta. Witnesses reported the plane was in a “steep bank” and “near vertical” when it crashed, Brannen said.

FAA records indicate that the Cessna flew into Hammond from Jackson, Mississippi, about 2:30 p.m. Wednesday before taking off about an hour later. Records also indicate the plane belonged to SD Management Inc., of Lafayette.

The 1973 Cessna 421B twin-engine plane had eight seats, but local officials confirmed Wednesday afternoon that only two people were on board when the crash occurred.

The small plane had just taken off about 3:45 p.m. Wednesday and had reached no higher than 200 feet when it “nose-dived” into the ground, Tangipahoa Parish Coroner Rick Foster has said.

The plane, which had just refueled and was carrying about 200 gallons, was fully engulfed when first responders arrived within minutes of the crash, Panepinto said.

Brannen said the fire damage was extensive and “will hamper somewhat” investigators’ examination of the plane. But the engines remained “pretty well intact” and will be examined along with the propellers and what is left of the aircraft’s frame, he said.

The initial focus will be on the plane because some of that evidence is perishable, Brannen said. Officials plan to move the wreckage late Thursday or Friday and examine it off-site, he said.

Investigators also will review witness statements, video surveillance footage from the airport’s security cameras and recordings of the air traffic control tower’s communications with the pilot, Brannen said.

The pilot had alerted the tower to the plane’s distress, but investigators won’t know what other information the pilot may have relayed about the aircraft’s condition until they listen to the recordings, Brannen said.

Investigators have started gathering information about maintenance performed on the plane and also are looking into the pilot’s records.

Brannen said Thursday that investigators did not yet know how many flight hours the pilot had logged but that he was a certified commercial pilot with ratings for single- and multi-engine planes, as well as larger aircraft, and also held an instrument rating for navigating in adverse weather conditions.

The initial part of the investigation should be done in about a week, Brannen said. The final report could take a year to complete.

Panepinto said Thursday that the plane’s departure appeared to be normal until the point of failure.

The Hammond Fire Department, which has a station at the airport, arrived at the crash scene within minutes and extinguished the plane fire and surrounding grass fire.

The crash occurred about 300 yards northwest of the shorter of the airport’s two runways, near the airfield’s northern boundary along Vineyard Road.

Follow Heidi R. Kinchen on Twitter, @HeidiRKinchen , or call her at (225) 336-6981.