Three of the four crew were found dead, and the fourth remained missing. Officials said the death toll could have been much worse.
Nearly 70,000 people work in the district on the airport's edge, where the aging DC-8 wobbled and went down sharply Thursday, skidding the length of a football field over busy 72nd Avenue, which carries 30,000 cars a day.
"The nose of the plane came right through my front door," William Bartomeu, who runs a hobby and collectible shop, told the Sun-Sentinel in Fort Lauderdale.
At least two people on the ground suffered minor injuries. Panicked workers ran screaming from warehouses and small offices in the area known as Airport West.
"We were very, very lucky," Metro-Dade Mayor Alex Penelas said. "This could have been a much worse incident for this community."
Investigators sent flight recorders to the Washington headquarters of the National Transportation Safety Board, which is considering mechanical problems, pilot error or shifting cargo as potential causes.
But investigators already knew the 29-year-old Fine Air jet had at least 18 incidents of mechanical trouble since 1994, according to the Federal Aviation Administration.
Flight 101, which carried 80,000 pounds of denim pieces, wobbled and went down just after takeoff.
Kathy Petrosky said her stepson, 26-year-old First Officer Steven Petrosky, had been with Fine Air since 1994 and was working toward a license to pilot passenger planes.
"It's very sad," she told WPLG. "The only consolation is that he was doing what he loves."
The television station identified the other two confirmed dead as Capt. Pat Thompson and Flight Engineer Glen Millington.
The crash site remained dangerous with jet fuel and oxygen canisters, said NTSB spokesman Pat Cariseo. Crews continued to look over the wreckage today.
Witnesses said the plane took off at a steep altitude, lost momentum and wobbled sharply to each side before going down in a field. Several witnesses said they saw an engine on the right wing spitting fire.
"It went straight up like a missile," said Bill Garcia, who was on a United Parcel Service picket line. "It veered to the right and to the left and then it just nose-dived straight down."
Mary Schiavo, former inspector general of the U.S. Department of Transportation, told The Miami Herald that the accounts sound like the plane suffered engine failure.
Three of the DC-8's previous reported mechanical difficulties involved problem takeoffs, two of them from Miami.
Noise and vibration forced the plane to return to Miami International Airport in September 1995. Nine months later, the jet lost hydraulic pressure at takeoff and had to return, the Herald reported today. Last month, a landing cracked one of the struts on the plane's right side.
The airline just passed "the most extensive FAA inspection ... with flying colors," Fine Air vice president of sales Nancy Adels told Fox News.
One of Miami's busiest cargo carriers, Fine Air operates 15 DC-8s hauling freight to South America, Central America and the Caribbean.
This was the second big cargo plane crash in the United States in eight days. A FedEx jet went down July 31 at Newark International Airport in New Jersey. The five people aboard escaped before the MD-11 burned.