CLARENCE, N.Y. A commuter plane coming in for a landing slammed into a suburban Buffalo home in a fiery explosion that killed all 48 people on board and one person on the ground, authorities said. It was the first fatal crash of a commercial airliner in the U.S. in 2 1/2 years.
Witnesses heard the twin turboprop aircraft sputtering before it went down in light snow and fog.
Flames silhouetted the shattered home after Continental Connection Flight 3407 plummeted into it around 10:20 p.m. about 10 miles from Buffalo Niagara International Airport.
"The whole sky was lit up orange," said Bob Dworak, who lives less than a mile from the crash site. "All the sudden, there was a big bang, and the house shook."
The 74-seat Q400 Bombardier aircraft was carrying 5,000 pounds of fuel and apparently exploded on impact, Erie County Executive Chris Collins said.
Firefighters got as close to the plane as they could, he said. "They were shouting out to see if there were any survivors on the plane. Truly a very heroic effort, but there were no survivors."
The airplane operated by Colgan Air was flying from Newark Liberty International Airport to Buffalo.
Prior to the crash, the voice of a female pilot on Flight 3407 could be heard communicating with air traffic controllers, according to a recording of the Buffalo air traffic control's radio messages shortly before the crash captured by the Web site www.liveatc.net. Neither the controller nor the pilot shows any concern that anything is out of the ordinary as the airplane is asked to fly at 2,300 feet.
A minute later, the controller tries to contact the plane but hears no response. After a pause, he tries to contact the plane again.
Eventually he tells an unidentified listener to contact authorities on the ground in the Clarence area.
"You need to find if anything is on the ground," the controller says. "All I can tell you is the aircraft is over the marker (landing beacon), and we're not talking to them now."
After the crash, at least two pilots are heard saying they have been picking up ice on their wings.
"We've been getting ice since 20 miles south of the airport," one says.
While residents of his neighborhood about 10 miles from the Buffalo airport were used to planes rumbling overhead, witnesses said this one sounded louder than usual, sputtered and made some odd noises.
After hearing the crash, Dworak drove over to take a look, and "all we were seeing was 50 to 100 foot flames and a pile of rubble on the ground. It looked like the house just got destroyed the instant it got hit."
Witness Tony Tatro said he saw the plane flying low and knew it was in trouble.
"It was not spiraling at all. The left wing was a little low," he told WGRZ-TV.
Doug Hartmayer, a spokesman for the Niagara Frontier Transportation Authority that operates the airport, said it was unknown if the airport reported any trouble.
"There is an extensive investigation as we speak," Hartmayer said. "There was very little or any communication before the crash."
"The plane simply dropped off the radar screen," he said.
Amy Kudwa, a spokeswoman for the Department of Homeland Security in Washington, said there was no indication terrorism was involved.
"All indications are that this was an air-safety event," she said.
The National Transportation Safety Board said it was sending a team of crash investigators, headed by Lorenda Ward, to Buffalo early Friday. Federal Aviation Administration spokeswoman Laura Brown said the agency would join the NTSB investigation. The NTSB planned a 4 a.m. news conference in Clarence.
It was the first fatal crash of a commercial airliner in the United States since Aug. 27, 2006, when 49 people were killed after a Comair jetliner took off from a Lexington, Ky., runway that was too short.
The newest member of Bombardier's Dash-8 class aircraft, the Q400 had its first flight in 1998 and entered commercial service in February 2000.
Houston-based Continental Airlines issued a statement saying that preliminary information showed the plane carried 44 passengers and a crew of four.
"At this time, the full resources of Colgan Air's accident response team are being mobilized and will be devoted to cooperating with all authorities responding to the accident and to contacting family members and providing assistance to them," the statement said.
"Continental extends its deepest sympathy to the family members and loved ones of those involved in this accident," said Larry Kellner, chairman and CEO of Continental Airlines, in a later statement. "Our thoughts and prayers are with all of the family members and loved ones of those involved in the flight 3407 tragedy."
Continental representatives were traveling to Buffalo to provide assistance to Colgan in its response to the accident. A family assistance center is being established in the area.
Chris Kausner, believing his sister was on the plane, rushed to a hastily established command center after calling his vacationing mother in Florida to break the news.
"To tell you the truth, I heard my mother make a noise on the phone that I've never heard before. So not good, not good," he told reporters.
He told The Buffalo News his sister, Ellyce, was a law student at Florida Coastal University in Jacksonville and on her way home for a visit.
Sue Bourque told the newspaper her sister, Beverly Eckert, was aboard the plane. Eckert is the widow of Sean Rooney, who was killed in the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center. Bourque said that while the family had not yet received official confirmation of her sister's fate, the reality was settling in.
"We know she was on that plane," she told the newspaper, "and now she's with him."
Clarence emergency control director Dave Bissonette said the crash killed one person on the ground.
Clarence is a growing eastern suburb of Buffalo, largely residential but with rural stretches. The crash site is a street of older, single-family homes which apparently back up to wooded area.
Manassas, Va.-based Colgan Air said in a statement that airline personnel and local authorities were working to confirm the number of people on board and their identities.
Twelve homes were evacuated near the crash site, about 10 miles from the airport. The tail or part of a wing was visible through flames and thick smoke that engulfed the scene. While the fire was contained, smoke still billowed over the scene about four hours later. Houses in the neighborhood are only about 20-25 feet apart.
The house that was demolished was a two-story, wood-frame house that backed up to a large open field.
"The fact that the damage is limited to the one residence is really amazing," said state police spokeswoman Rebecca Gibbons.
As family members of the victims trickled in to the airport in the overnight hours, they were escorted by airport personnel to a private area.
Two women believed to be residents of the neighborhood were being treated at Millard Fillmore Suburban Hospital for what were described as non-life threatening injuries, hospital spokesman Michael Hughes said. Two volunteer firefighters also were being treated for smoke inhalation and minor injuries.
The crash came less than a month after a US Airways pilot guided his crippled plane to a landing in the Hudson River off Manhattan, saving the lives of all 155 people aboard. Birds had apparently disabled both its engines.
On Dec. 20, a Continental Airlines plane veered off a runway and slid into a snowy field at the Denver airport, injuring 38 people.
Continental's release said relatives and friends of those on Flight 3407 who wanted to give or receive information about those on board could telephone a special family assistance number, 1-800-621-3263.
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