CLARENCE, N.Y. (AP) - 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 21/2 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.
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. Airport officials said the plane simply fell off the radar screen.
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."