NEW YORK – A small plane carrying New York Yankees pitcher Cory Lidle crashed into a 50-story luxury condo building on Manhattan's Upper East Side Wednesday, killing Lidle and an instructor, igniting a raging fire and initially trapping people on the floors above the point of impact.
Twenty-one people, including six firefighters, were injured, officials said. Miraculously, nobody inside the building was killed.
Yankees owner George Steinbrenner confirmed in a statement that Lidle, 34, had died in the crash, leaving behind a wife and a 6-year-old son.
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"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 issued through his publicity officer.
It wasn't clear whether Lidle — who got his flying license during last year's off-season — was at the controls of the single-engine aircraft, a four-seat Cirrus SR20 registered to him, on Wednesday.
The pitcher's passport was found at the accident site, said law enforcement officials, speaking on condition of anonymity. The plane issued a distress call before it came through a hazy, cloudy sky and struck the red-brick high-rise building, called The Belaire, with a loud bang.
The Federal Aviation Administration said it was too early to determine what might have caused the crash.
The accident came just four days after the Yankees' embarrassingly quick elimination from the playoffs, during which Lidle had been relegated to the bullpen. In recent days, Lidle had taken abuse from fans on sports talk radio for saying the team was unprepared.
New York City Police Department officials and the New York City Medical Examiner said two people were confirmed dead, despite other reports of four killed. Nearby New York Presbyterian said they admitted 10 people with injuries, six of them firefighters. Officials there said one person was dead on arrival.
Port Authority officials said the plane took off from Teterboro Airport in New Jersey at 2:30 p.m. EDT and circled the Statue of Liberty before heading up the East River. Air traffic control lost contact with the aircraft when it was in the area of the 59th Street Bridge, according to New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg.
The plane hit the 30th and 31st floors of the building, located at 524 East 72nd Street.
Young May Cha, a 23-year-old Cornell University medical student, said she was walking back from the grocery store down East 72nd Street when she saw something come across the sky and crash into the skyscraper.
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 New York Fire Department told FOX News that there were people trapped above the point of impact, but the NYPD later said that all occupants located above the fire-ravaged floors had been evacuated.
By 3:30 p.m. EDT, less than an hour after the crash, firefighters extinguished the blaze.
FBI spokeswoman Christine Monaco said there was no indication the crash — which happened five years and one month after Sept. 11, 2001 — was a terrorist attack, but officials "have been sent to the scene as a routine."
"The initial indication is that there is a terrible accident," said Department of Homeland Security spokesman Russ Knocke.
Fighter jets, however, were scrambled and patrolled the skies above major cities including New York, Washington, Los Angeles and Seattle as a precaution, according to Defense Department officials.
The White House said neither President Bush nor Vice President Dick Cheney was moved to secure locations.
FAA spokesman Jim Peters said that all three New York City-area airports were operating normally, but LaGuardia International Airport later reported gate holds and taxi delays of between 31 and 45 minutes in length that were increasing. LaGuardia arrival traffic had airborne delays of 15 minutes or less, according to the airport.
The crash set off massive blaze that sent a pillar of gray smoke over the city, police said. Witnesses reported seeing a gigantic fireball come out of the building, according to authorities.
Flames could be seen shooting from windows on two or three upper floors of the 50-story building, near the East River. Burning debris rained down onto the street below.
"There's huge pieces of debris falling," said one witness who refused to give her full name. "There's so much falling now, I've got to get away."
Mayor Michael Bloomberg went to the site, where parts of the fuselage were falling to the ground in the immediate aftermath of the crash.
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.
"It wasn't until I was halfway home that I started shaking. The whole memory of an airplane flying into a building and across the street from your home. It's a little too close to home," Sara Green, 40, who lives across the street from The Belaire. "It crossed my mind that it was something bigger or the start of something bigger."
There were dozens of firefighters, emergency workers and other first responders on the scene.
"Everyone was running down the street, kids were screaming and crying," Rich Behar, a New York resident and former Time magazine reporter, told FOX News. "There was a lot of horror and terror when it hit," Behar added, saying the whole ordeal reminded him of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.
A spokesman for the National Transportation Safety Board said that agency was organizing a team to send to New York to investigate the crash.
The Belaire is a 50-story condominium tower built in 1986 and located nearby 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, Fisher said.
Mystery writer Carol Higgins Clark, daughter of author Mary Higgins Clark, lives on the 38th floor but was not home at the time. She described the building's residents as a mix of actors, doctors, lawyers and writers, and people with second homes.
On Sunday, the day after the Yankees were eliminated from the playoffs, Lidle, acquired from the Philadelphia Phillies July 30, cleaned out his locker at Yankee Stadium and talked about his interest in flying.
He said he intended to fly back to California in several days and planned to make a few stops. Lidle discussed the plane crash that killed John F. Kennedy Jr. and how he had read the accident report on the NTSB Web site. He said he felt safe flying his plane.
Lidle pitched 1 1/3 innings in the fourth and final game of the Division Series against the Detroit Tigers and gave up three earned runs, but was not the losing pitcher. He had a 12-10 regular-season record with a 4.85 ERA.
He pitched with the Phillies before coming to the Yankees and began his career in 1997 with the Mets. He also pitched for Tampa Bay, Oakland, Toronto and Cincinnati.
The guarantee language of Lidle's $6.3 million, two-year contract, signed with the Phillies in November 2004, contained a provision saying the team could get out of paying the remainder if he were injured or killed while piloting a plane. Because the regular season is over, Lidle already had received the full amount in the deal.
After the Yankees' defeat at the hands of the Tigers, Lidle called in to WFAN sports-talk radio two days before the crash to defend manager Joe Torre, and said: "I want to win as much as anybody. But what am I supposed to do? Go cry in my apartment for the next two weeks."
Lidle was an outcast among some teammates throughout his career because he became a replacement player in 1995, when major leaguers were on strike.
"It's just sadder than sad," said New York Mets pitching coach Rick Peterson, who was Lidle's pitching coach in Oakland. "It's horrific. It's almost unbelievable. It's a surreal moment."
The Associated Press contributed to this report.