Published February 13, 2009
A Continental Airlines commuter plane coming in for a landing in Buffalo, N.Y., dove into a house in snowy, foggy weather, killing all 49 people on board and one person on the ground.
The crash of Flight 3407 sparked a fiery explosion. Firefighters worked through the night to douse the flames.
"The whole sky was lit up orange," said Bob Dworak, who lives less than a mile from the crash site. "There was a big bang, and the house shook."
It was the first fatal crash of a commercial airliner in the U.S. in 2 ½ 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 about five miles from Buffalo Niagara International Airport.
"It basically dove right into the top of the house from my perspective," Clarence emergency control director Dave Bissonette said. "I'm no expert on re-creation, but it landed on the house, clearly a direct hit."
One person in the home was killed, and two others inside, Karen Wielinski, 57, and her daughter, Jill, 22, were able to escape with minor injuries. Twelve homes were evacuated near the crash site.
Houston-based Continental Airlines said the plane carried 44 passengers and a crew of four. There was also an off-duty crew member from Colgan Air aboard.
Among the 44 passengers killed was Beverly Eckert, a woman whose husband died in the World Trade Center attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
Though the passenger list wasn't released Friday morning, Colgan Air did identify its crew who were killed: pilots Captain Marvin Renslow and First Officer Rebecca Shaw; flight attendants Matilda Quintero and Donna Prisco; and off-duty crew member Captain Joseph Zuffoletto.
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.
A spokeswoman for the Department of Homeland Security in Washington said there was no indication terrorism was involved.
"All indications are that this was an air-safety event," said spokeswoman Amy Kudwa.
President Obama issued a statement Friday morning extending his sympathies to the victims' families.
"Michelle and I are deeply saddened to hear of the tragic accident outside of Buffalo last night. Our hearts go out to the families and friends who lost loved ones," the president said.
"I want to thank the brave first responders who arrived immediately to try and save lives and who are continuing to ensure the safety of everyone in the area. We pray for all those who have been touched by this terrible tragedy to find peace and comfort in the hard days ahead."
He planned to address the crash before his remarks to the Business Council Friday at 10:30 a.m. EST at the White House.
The National Transportation Safety Board sent a team of crash investigators to Buffalo early Friday.
By morning, with the rubble still smoking, the task of retrieving remains had not yet begun.
Bissonette called it "still a hot scene."
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 LiveATC.net.
Neither the controller nor the pilot showed any concerns 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 said. "All I can tell you is the aircraft is over the marker (landing beacon), and we're not talking to them now.
"This aircraft was 5 miles out, all of a sudden we have no response from that aircraft."
After the crash, at least two pilots were heard saying they had been picking up ice on their wings.
"We've been getting ice since 20 miles south of the airport," one says.
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.
Neighbor David Luce said he and his wife were working on their computers when they heard the plane come in low.
"It didn't sound normal," he said. "We heard it for a few seconds, then it stopped, then a couple of seconds later was this tremendous explosion."
The house was totally demolished, with no sign of the plane through the thick, acrid smoke, Luce said.
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."
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," said Collins. "Truly a very heroic effort, but there were no survivors."
It was the first fatal crash of a commercial airliner in the United States since Aug. 27, 2006, when 49 people were killed after a Comair jetliner took off from a Lexington, Ky., runway that was too short.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.
"At this time, the full resources of Colgan Air's accident response team are being mobilized and will be devoted to cooperating with all authorities responding to the accident and to contacting family members and providing assistance to them," the statement said.
"Continental extends its deepest sympathy to the family members and loved ones of those involved in this accident," said Larry Kellner, chairman and CEO of Continental Airlines, in a later statement. "Our thoughts and prayers are with all of the family members and loved ones of those involved in the flight 3407 tragedy."
Manassas, Va., based Colgan Air said in a statement that airline personnel and local authorities were working to confirm the number of people on board and their identities.
As family members of the victims trickled in to the airport in the overnight hours, they were escorted by airport personnel to a private area.
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.
Clarence is an eastern suburb of Buffalo that is largely residential but with rural patches.
While the fire was contained, smoke still billowed over the scene about four hours later.
"The fact that the damage is limited to the one residence is really amazing," said state police spokeswoman Rebecca Gibbons.
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.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.