CLARENCE, N.Y. – A Continental commuter plane coming in for a landing nose-dived into a house in suburban Buffalo, sparking a fiery explosion that killed all 49 people aboard and a person in the home. It was the nation’s first fatal crash of a commercial airliner in 2½ years.
Witnesses heard the twin turboprop aircraft sputtering before it went down in light snow and fog around 10:20 p.m. Thursday about five miles from Buffalo Niagara International Airport. Continental Connection Flight 3407 from Newark, N.J., came in squarely through the roof of the house, its tail section visible through flames shooting at least 50 feet high.
“The whole sky was lit up orange,” said Bob Dworak, who lives less than a mile away. “All the sudden, there was a big bang, and the house shook.”
Two others in the house escaped with minor injuries. The plane was carrying a four-member crew and an off-duty pilot. Among the 44 passengers killed was a woman whose husband died in the World Trade Center attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
By morning, with the rubble still smoking, the task of retrieving remains had not yet begun.
Erie County Emergency Coordinator David Bissonette said it appeared the plane “dove directly on top of the house.”
“It was a direct hit,” Bissonette said. “It’s remarkable that it only took one house. As devastating as that is, it could have wiped out the entire neighborhood.”
President Barack Obama voiced condolences, saying “our hearts go out to the families and friends who lost loved ones.”
No mayday call came from the pilot before the crash, according to a recording of air traffic control’s radio messages captured by the Web site LiveATC.net. Neither the controller nor the pilot showed concern that anything was out of the ordinary as the airplane was asked to fly at 2,300 feet.
At the time of the last radio contact, the controller said the plane was three miles from a radio beacon that stands about four miles northeast of the airport. The controller told the crew to turn the plane left to intercept a radio signal that would guide it to Runway 23. A female pilot aboard the plane calmly repeated the instructions back correctly.
A minute later, the controller tried to contact the plane but heard no response. After a pause, he tried to contact the plane again.
Eventually he told an unidentified listener to contact authorities on the ground in the Clarence area.
After the crash, at least two pilots were heard on air traffic control messages saying they had been picking up ice on their wings.
“We’ve been getting ice since 20 miles south of the airport,” one said.
The National Transportation Safety Board sent a team of investigators to Buffalo. The Department of Homeland Security said there was no indication of terrorism.
While residents of the neighborhood were used to planes rumbling overhead, witnesses said it sounded louder than usual, sputtered and made odd noises.
David Luce said he and his wife were working on their computers when they heard the plane come in low.
“It didn’t sound normal,” he said. “We heard it for a few seconds, then it stopped, then a couple of seconds later was this tremendous explosion.”
Dworak drove to the site, 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.”
One person in the home was killed, and two others inside, Karen Wielinski, 57, and her 22-year-old daughter, Jill, were able to escape with minor injuries. Twelve homes were evacuated.
The plane 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.”
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 74-seat Q400 Bombardier aircraft was operated by Manassas, Va.-based Colgan Air.
About 30 relatives and others who arrived at the airport in the overnight hours were escorted into a private area and then taken by bus to a senior citizens center in the neighboring town of Cheektowaga, where counselors and representatives from Continental waited to help.
“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,” Continental chairman and CEO Larry Kellner said in a statement. “Our thoughts and prayers are with all of the family members and loved ones of those involved in the flight 3407 tragedy.”
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.
The 9/11 widow on board was identified as Beverly Eckert. She was heading to Buffalo for a celebration of what would have been her husband’s 58th birthday, said Mary Fetchet, a 9/11 family activist.
Airline officials identified the crew as Capt. Marvin Renslow, pilot; first officer Rebecca Shaw and flight attendants Matilda Quintero and Donna Prisco. The off-duty crew member was Capt. Joseph Zuffoletto.
Clarence is a growing eastern suburb of Buffalo, largely residential but with rural stretches. The crash site is a street of closely spaced, older, single-family homes that back up to a wooded area.
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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