NEW YORK — A small plane with New York Yankees pitcher Cory Lidle aboard crashed into a 40-story condominium tower Wednesday on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, killing two people and raining flaming debris on sidewalks, authorities said. Yankees’ owner George M. Steinbrenner confirmed Lidle was one of the two dead.
A law enforcement official in Washington, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Lidle was on the plane. And Federal Aviation Administration records showed the single-engine plane was registered to the athlete. A passport belonging to Lidle, an avid pilot who got his flying license after last year's offseason, was reportedly found on the street below the crash site.
Lidle’s flight instructor was also presumed dead. It was not known who was at the controls.
A federal official, speaking on condition of anonymity, had said the plane issued a distress call before the crash. But National Transportation Safety Board member Debbie Hersman said at a late-night news conference that the FAA found no indication of a mayday call.
Earlier reports had cited four bodies found; the city’s medical examiner’s office later confirmed only two people had died.
The FBI and the Homeland Security Department said there was no evidence it was a terrorist attack. “The initial indication is that there is a terrible accident,” Homeland Security spokesman Russ Knocke said. Nevertheless, fighter jets were sent aloft over U.S. cities as a precaution, the Pentagon said.
The plane came through a hazy, cloudy sky and hit the 20th floor of The Belaire — a red-brick tower overlooking the East River, about five miles from the World Trade Center — with a loud bang, touching off a raging fire that cast a pillar of black smoke over the city and sent flames shooting from four windows on two adjoining floors.
"This is a terrible and shocking tragedy that has stunned the entire Yankees organization. I offer my deepest condolences and prayers to his wife Melanie, and son Christopher, on their enormous loss," Steinbrenner said in a statement on Thursday.
New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg said at a news conference Wednesday that the plane left from Teterboro Airport in New Jersey at 2:20 p.m. The airport is 12 miles from midtown Manhattan.
Bloomberg said the city’s response to the accident was “massive and quick and coordinated.”
He said a flight instructor and a student pilot with 75 hours of experience were aboard and killed. The pair had circled the Statue of Liberty in New York Harbor before heading uptown. Both bodies were found on the street below, and the plane’s engine was found in one of the apartments, Bloomberg said.
Firefighters shot streams of water at the flames from the floors below and put the blaze out in less than an hour.
Two residents of the building barely escaped with their lives from an adjoining apartment after the plane exploded on contact, sending thick black smoke above the city skyline as a four-alarm fire raged high above 72nd Street.
Large crowds gathered in the street in the largely wealthy New York neighborhood, with many people in tears and some trying to reach loved ones by cell phone.
“I was worried the building would explode, so I got out of there fast,” said Lori Claymont, who fled an adjoining building in sweatpants.
Young May Cha, a 23-year-old Cornell University medical student, said she was walking back from the grocery store down 72nd Street when she saw an object out of the corner of her eye.
“I just saw something come across the sky and crash into that building,” she said. Cha said there appeared to be smoke coming from behind the aircraft, and “it looked like it was flying erratically for the short time that I saw it.”
“The explosion was very small. I was not threatened for my life,” she added.
Lidle, 34, had repeatedly assured reporters in recent months that flying was safe and that the Yankees — who lost catcher Thurman Munson in the 1979 crash of a plane he was piloting — had no reason to worry.
“The flying?” Lidle told The Philadelphia Inquirer this summer. “I’m not worried about it. I’m safe up there. I feel very comfortable with my abilities flying an airplane.”
Richard Drutman, a professional photographer who lives on the 11th floor, said he was talking on the telephone when he felt the building shake.
“There was a huge explosion. I looked out my window, and saw what appeared to be pieces of wings, on fire, falling from the sky,” Drutman said. He and his girlfriend quickly evacuated the building.
NBC's Jay Blackman reported it was a fixed-wing aircraft operating under visual flight rules, which means the aircraft did not have to be in contact with air traffic controllers.
A federal aviation official, speaking on condition of anonymity because the investigation was continuing, said the plane was a Cirrus SR20 — an aircraft equipped with a parachute designed to let it float to earth in case of a mishap. There was no sign the chute was used.
FAA spokeswoman Diane Spitaliere said the plane was apparently not in contact with air traffic controllers; pilots flying small planes by sight are not required to be in contact.
The National Transportation Safety Board sent a team to investigate.
Former NTSB director Jim Hall said in a telephone interview he doesn’t understand how a plane could get so close to a New York City building after Sept. 11.
“We’re under a high alert and you would assume that if something like this happened, people would have known about it before it occurred, not after,” Hall said.
Mystery writer Carol Higgins Clark, daughter of author Mary Higgins Clark, lives on the 38th floor and was coming home in a cab when she saw the smoke. “Thank goodness I wasn’t at my apartment writing at the time,” she said. She described the building’s residents as a mix of actors, doctors, lawyers and writers, and people with second homes.
Sgt. Claudette Hutchinson, a spokeswoman for the North American Aerospace Defense Command in Colorado Springs, Colo., said fighter jets “are airborne over numerous U.S. cities and while every indication is that this is an accident, we see this as a prudent measure at this time.”
However, all three New York City-area airports continued to operate normally, FAA spokesman Jim Peters said. In Washington, White House spokesman Tony Fratto said neither President Bush nor Vice President Dick Cheney was moved to secure locations.
“All indications are that is an unfortunate accident,” said Yolanda Clark, a spokeswoman for Homeland Security’s Transportation Security Administration. She said there was “no specific or credible intelligence suggesting an imminent threat to the homeland, at this time.”
Memories of Sept. 11
The crash struck fear in a city devastated by the attacks of Sept. 11 five years ago. Sirens echoed across the neighborhood as about 170 firefighters rushed in along with emergency workers and ambulances. Broken glass and debris were strewn around the neighborhood.
“There’s a sense of helplessness,” said Sandy Teller, watching from his apartment a block away. “Cots and gurneys, waiting. It’s a mess.”
The tower was built in the late 1980s and is situated near Sotheby’s auction house. It has 183 apartments, many of which sell for more than $1 million.
Several lower floors are occupied by doctors and administrative offices, as well as guest facilities for family members of patients at the Hospital for Special Surgery, hospital spokeswoman Phyllis Fisher said.
No patients were in the high-rise building and operations at the hospital a block away were not affected, Fisher said.
NBC News and The Associated Press contributed to this report.