NEW YORK — Investigators and workers in hard hats gathered up the scorched pieces of New York Yankee Cory Lidle’s shattered plane at a luxury high-rise Thursday in a floor-by-floor sweep for clues to why the aircraft crashed.
The pitcher and his flight instructor were killed when their plane slammed into the 40-story condominium tower Wednesday.
Crews recovered the nose, wings, tail and instrument panel of the plane along with a hand-held GPS device as they conducted an exhaustive search of the building — inspecting even terraces and ledges, said National Transportation Safety Board member Debbie Hersman.
Men in hard hats lifted pieces of wreckage from the street and placed them neatly on a silver-colored tarp in the bed of a pickup truck. Neighborhood children gathered to gawk at the jagged and twisted metal, glass shards, and charred wing and door.
Hersman said the single-engine plane was cruising at 112 mph at 700 feet of altitude as it tried to make a U-turn to go south down the East River. It was last seen on radar about a quarter-mile north of the building, in the middle of the turn, at 500 feet.
“Early examination indicates that the propellers were turning” at the time of impact, Hersman said, suggesting the engine was still running.
She said toxicology samples had been obtained from the bodies, and would also be examined.
Residents began returning to their battered and scarred apartments, one day after the crash engulfed apartments in flames and sent fiery wreckage raining down on the street and sidewalk. One witness said he saw the charred body of one of the victims in the street.
“It was in a fetal position, strapped into a seat. I could see a white leg sticking up. It was awful,” said maintenance worker Juan Rosario, adding that other plane wreckage, including a door and wheels, was strewn near the body.
The medical examiner’s office removed the bodies Wednesday, but pieces of fuselage, a plane door and crushed vehicles still littered the street. Officials said aircraft parts and headsets were on the ground, and investigators discovered the pilot’s log book in the wreckage.
Flight instructor's story
More details also emerged Thursday about the flight instructor who was with Lidle aboard the four-seat Cirrus SR20 during the sightseeing flight around Manhattan. Tyler Stanger, 26, operated a flight school in La Verne, Calif.
Stanger earned his pilot’s license by 17 and earned a degree in aviation management from Southern Illinois University, according to the San Gabriel Valley Tribune. He worked for several years as an aircraft mechanic.
Stanger had known Lidle, who lived in Southern California in the offseason, for about a year. According to The New York Times, they met the day after the 2005 season ended and flew to Long Beach, Calif.
Lidle “was probably my best student,” and had a knack for dealing with simulated emergencies, Stanger told the newspaper last month.
Stanger’s 3-year-old business, Stang-AIR, offered instruction, plane rentals and sightseeing trips. Stang-AIR’s Web site contained a quote that said: “The most dangerous part about flying is the drive to the airport.”
Stanger is survived by his wife, Stephanie, who is pregnant, and an infant daughter.
Leisurely trip gone wrong
Lidle boarded his single-engine plane Wednesday afternoon with Stanger for what was supposed to be a leisurely flight around New York City. They took off from a suburban New Jersey airport, circled around the Statue of Liberty, flew past lower Manhattan and north above the East River.
But something went wrong just moments after passing above the 59th Street Bridge. The plane smashed into a luxury high-rise condominium building on the Upper East Side, killing Lidle and the other passenger and showering fiery debris on the sidewalk and street below, officials said.
“They were going to fly back together. It was right after the loss to Detroit,” said Dave Conriguez, who works at the airport coffee shop in California that Stanger frequented. “Tyler’s such a great flight instructor that I never gave it a second thought. It was just, ‘See you in a week.”’
The crash prompted renewed calls for the government to restrict the airspace around Manhattan to help ensure planes cannot get so close to the city’s skyscrapers. Much of the airspace over two of the main rivers that encircle Manhattan is open to small aircraft flying under 1,100 feet.
Lidle, who was 34 and had a wife and 6-year-old son, had obtained his pilot’s license during last year’s offseason, and viewed flying as an escape from the stress of professional baseball and a way to see the world in a different light. It was not clear who was at the controls — Lidle or Stanger.
Hersman said that as of September, there were 545 SR20s registered in the United States. Since 2001, the NTSB has investigated 18 accidents involving the plane; those crashes resulted in 14 deaths.
The crash briefly raised fears of another terrorist attack in this scarred city.
“It was very scary,” said Diane Tarantini, who was sitting in an outdoor courtyard across the street when she heard a loud boom and saw a big fireball that reminded her of Sept. 11. “It brings back all these memories about planes hitting buildings, the terror of that day in September.”
A federal official, speaking on condition of anonymity, had said that authorities had a report that the plane sent a distress call to the Federal Aviation Administration before the crash.
But Hersman said at a late-night news conference that “we’ve asked the FAA and they have reviewed some aircraft-control tapes. At this point they have no indication that there was a mayday call.” Thursday morning, she said officials were continuing to review the tapes.
The flight lasted about 20 minutes, with a 911 call about a fire coming in around 2:45 p.m.
Aircraft model’s record
The Cirrus SR20 was manufactured in 2002 and purchased earlier this year, Hersman said. The small aircraft has four seats and is equipped with a parachute designed to let it float to earth in case of a mishap. The parachute apparently did not engage after the crash.
The New York Times reported last month that Lidle earned his pilot’s license in the past year and bought the four-seat plane, with less than 400 hours of flight time, for $187,000.
Lidle also told the Times in an interview last month that Yankees fans should not worry he would suffer the same fate, insisting his plane was safe.
“The whole plane has a parachute on it,” Lidle said. “Ninety-nine percent of pilots that go up never have engine failure, and the 1 percent that do usually land it. But if you’re up in the air and something goes wrong, you pull that parachute, and the whole plane goes down slowly.”
NTSB records indicate a total of 12 accidents involving the Cirrus SR20, first flown as a prototype in 1995. In two accidents this year, pilots reported engines losing power.
Lidle had repeatedly assured reporters in recent weeks that flying was safe and that the Yankees — who were traumatized in 1979 when catcher Thurman Munson was killed in the crash of a plane he was piloting — had no reason to worry.
His teammates were stunned at the news of the crash.
“Right now, I am really in a state of shock,” Jason Giambi said in a statement. “I have known Cory and his wife Melanie for over 18 years and watched his son grow up. We played high school ball together and have remained close throughout our careers. We were excited to be reunited in New York this year and I am just devastated to hear this news.”
On Sunday, the day after the Yankees were eliminated from the playoffs, Lidle cleaned out his locker at Yankee Stadium and said he planned to fly back to California, making a few stops. Lidle had reserved a room for Wednesday night at the historic Union Station hotel in downtown Nashville, Tenn., hotel spokeswoman Melanie Fly said.
Family and friends converged on Lidle’s home in the Los Angeles suburb of Glendora, Calif., where he and his family moved about six years ago.
“This is a tragedy for everybody involved,” said his mother-in-law Mary Varela, her eyes welling with tears.
Lidle pitched with the Phillies before coming to the Yankees. He began his career in 1997 with the Mets and also pitched for Tampa Bay, Oakland, Toronto and Cincinnati.
Hazy, cloudy day
Wednesday afternoon, his plane came through a hazy, cloudy sky and slammed into apartments that were 30 and 31 stories above the street, but the floors are numbered at 40 and 41, and go up to 50, even though the building is technically about 40 stories high.
The crash touched 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. Firefighters put the blaze out in less than an hour.
Luis Gonzales, who was working in the building, said that “I was looking out the window and I saw the plane coming so close to us and it swerved to try and avoid the building but it hit the building.”
At least 21 people were taken to hospitals, most of them firefighters. Their conditions were not disclosed.
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. Rain started pouring at around 4 p.m., and people gazed up at the smoke and fire as they covered their heads with plastic bags; earlier, parts of the plane fell to the ground.
“I just saw something come across the sky and crash into that building,” said Young May Cha, 23, a medical student who was walking along 72nd Street. “There was fire, debris ... The explosion was very small.”
Fighter jets scramble
The military scrambled fighter jets over New York and other major cities immediately after the crash. Adm. Timothy Keating, commander of U.S. Northern Command, told The Associated Press military officials knew it likely wasn’t a terrorist act “about a half an hour after it happened.”
“My first reaction when I saw an airplane going into a building in New York City was, ‘Oh no, we’ve got another 9/11,”’ he said.
All three New York City-area airports continued to operate normally. In Washington, White House spokesman Tony Fratto said neither President Bush nor Vice President Dick Cheney was moved to secure locations.
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.
Slideshow: Images of crash “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. 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.
No patients were in the high-rise building and operations at the hospital a block away were not affected, Fisher said.
The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.