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Fiery plane crash in upstate New York kills 50

Feb. 13, 2009, Clarence, N.Y. — A Continental commuter plane has crashed in suburban Buffalo, killing all 49 people aboard and one person on the ground.


February 13, 2009
By John Wawrow

Feb. 13, 2009, 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 2 1/2
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.

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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.

Contributing to this report were Associated Press writers
Carolyn Thompson in Buffalo, Linda Franklin in Dallas, Daniel Yee in
Atlanta, Ron Powers in Washington, and Cristian Salazar and Jennifer
Peltz in New York.

  • Audio of air traffic control:
    http://sn.im/bt1z3
  • THE ASSOCIATED PRESS


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