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50 killed as plane slams into home near Buffalo

NBC News
February 13, 2009

CLARENCE, N.Y. – Investigators recovered the flight data and cockpit voice recorders from the wreckage of Continental Connection Flight 3407 on Friday as they sought to determine why the commuter plane plunged out of the night sky and nose-dive into a suburban Buffalo house.

All 49 people on board and one person on the ground were killed in the first fatal crash of a commercial airliner in the U.S. in 2 1/2 years.

The cause of the disaster was under investigation. Other pilots were overheard around the same time Thursday night complaining of ice building up on their planes’ wings – a hazard that has caused major crashes in the past.

The twin-turboprop aircraft from Newark, N.J., was coming in for a landing when it went down in light snow and fog around 10:20 p.m. Thursday about five miles short of the Buffalo Niagara International Airport.

Witnesses heard the plane sputtering before it plunged squarely through the roof of a 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.”

One person in the house was killed, and two others 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, and two members of jazz musician Chuck Mangione’s band.

Black boxes recovered

Federal investigators Friday were able to retrieve the so-called “black boxes” – the flight data and cockpit voice recorders – and sent them to Washington for analysis, said Keith Holloway, spokesman for the National Transportation Safety Board.

FBI spokesman Richard Kolko said there is “no indication of any security-related event” that brought the plane down.

The 74-seat Q400 Bombardier aircraft, registered last April, was delayed almost two hours before departing Newark, N.J.

Philip H. Trenary, who heads Pinnacle Airlines Corp. and operator Colgan Air, Inc., said at a news conference Friday that he didn’t know why there was a delay.

Trenary said the plane was a “next-generation turbo prop, very modern.”

“It’s an aircraft that’s had flawless service,” he said. “So no, there have been no indications of problems with the aircraft.”

No response to controllers

There was no mayday call from the pilot, 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.

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.

“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.”

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.”

The aircraft was operated by Colgan Air, based in Manassas, Va. Colgan’s parent company, Pinnacle Airlines of Memphis, said the plane was new and had a clean safety record.

The nearly vertical drop of the plane suggests a sudden loss of control, said William Voss, a former official of the Federal Aviation Administration and current president of the Flight Safety Foundation, a nonprofit advocacy group.

Voss suggested that icing or a mechanical failure, such as wing flaps deploying asymmetrically or the two engines putting out different thrust, might have caused the crash.

After the accident, 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.

Odd noises overhead

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.

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.

A man in the home that the plane struck was killed. He was identified as Douglas C. Wielinski, 61, The Buffalo News reported. His 57-year-old wife and their 22-year-old daughter escaped with minor injuries.

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.

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.

Two members of jazz musician Chuck Mangione’s band were also among the victims, said band publicist Sanford Brokaw. He identified them as Gerry Niewood and Coleman Mellett.

No survivors

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.”

It was the nation’s first fatal crash of a commercial airliner 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 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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