CLARENCE, New York - A commuter plane "basically dove" into a Buffalo-area house while coming in for a landing, sparking a fiery explosion that killed all 49 people on board and one person on the ground, an emergency official said Friday.
It was the first fatal crash of a commercial airliner in the United States 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. Flames silhouetted the shattered home after Continental Connection Flight 3407 plummeted into it around about five 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, operated by Colgan Air, was flying from Newark Liberty International Airport in New Jersey and preparing to land at Buffalo Niagara International Airport.
No security link seen
FBI spokesman Richard Kolko said there is "no indication of any security related event" that brought the plane down.
Six hours after the crash, the task of retrieving remains had not yet begun.
"It's still a hot scene," Clarence emergency control director Dave Bissonette said. "The fuselage lies right on the footprint of the house."
The National Transportation Safety Board said it was sending a team of crash investigators to Buffalo early Friday.
Residents describe odd noises
While residents of the neighborhood where the plane went down 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.
Mother and daughter escape home
One person in the home that the plane struck was killed, and two others inside were able to escape with minor injuries.
The two who escaped were later named by hospital officials as Karen Wielinski, 57, and her daughter Jill, 22, The Buffalo News reported.
Twelve homes were evacuated near the crash site. The tail or part of a wing was visible through flames and thick smoke that engulfed the scene.
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.
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. Video
What caused the crash?
Feb. 13: TODAY hosts talk to NBC News aviation expert Robert Hager about what might have caused Flight 3407 to go down near Buffalo, N.Y..
Sue Bourque told The Buffalo News 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."
Erie County Executive Chris Collins said the plane was carrying 5,000 pounds of fuel and apparently exploded on impact.
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."
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Complaints of ice on wings
Prior to the crash, the voice of a female pilot on Continental 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 http://www.liveatc.net . Neither the controller nor the pilot showed any concerns that anything is out of the ordinary as the airplane is asked to fly at 2,300 feet.
Weather a role in Buffalo crash?
Feb. 13: TODAY’s Al Roker looks at the wintry weather conditions present when Flight 3407 crashed into a Buffalo, N.Y., home.
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.