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 get back to the airport, he said. The plane hit a tree and a fence as it crashed into a parking lot.
Seven cars and a boat caught fire.
Television images showed heavy black smoke rising from the crash scene. Later images show a parking lot with vehicles in a corner that are burned-out shells, a smoldering heap covered in foam spread by firefighters on the scene. The cars are by a chain-link fence, and a building on the other side is streaked with black.
"It looks like a junk yard that burned up," said Matt Little, a spokesman for Fort Lauderdale fire and rescue.
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.
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.
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.
Don Adams, who works across the street from the crash, said his friends own the repossession yard where the plane crashed. Two employees were out in the yard at the time of the crash, but miraculously weren't hurt.
"Everything in that yard is a loss," he said.