Manhattan Plane Crash Kills Yankee Pitcher

NY Times - October 12, 2006

by JAMES BARRON

A single-engine plane carrying the Yankees pitcher Cory Lidle smashed into a 42-story building on the Upper East Side yesterday, killing Mr. Lidle and his flight instructor, the authorities said.

The afternoon crash beneath overcast skies sent debris clattering hundreds of feet to the sidewalk and started a fire that destroyed several apartments and left a charred smudge on the face of the building.

Fourteen firefighters and four people in the building were injured, officials said, including a woman who had been in an apartment hit squarely by the plane and escaped the inferno, suffering burns.

The plane, owned by Mr. Lidle, was a Cirrus SR20, a four-seat propeller plane that is popular for its performance and sleek looks. It has a fixed landing gear reminiscent of a stunt plane. With two sets of controls, officials said, either Mr. Lidle or his instructor could have been flying it.

It slammed into the center of a 501-foot building on East 72nd Street several hundred yards from the East River. New Yorkers with memories of the Sept. 11 attack on the World Trade Center watched smoke drifting toward the sky as firefighters clambered into another high-rise, and the North American Aerospace Defense Command scrambled military jets. Some worried that they had witnessed another terrorist attack, but officials quickly dismissed that notion.

Mr. Lidle, 34, a pilot for less than a year who was traded to the Yankees in the summer, had talked enthusiastically about flying to his home in California this week.

As he cleaned out his locker at Yankee Stadium on Sunday, the day after the Yankees' playoff hopes fizzled in a series loss in Detroit against the Tigers, he said that he planned to work on instrument training exercises yesterday before he left for California, and that his regular instructor, whom he identified as Tyler Stanger, was coming in to work with him. Officials said they believed that Mr. Stanger was the second victim.

The plane took off from Teterboro Airport in New Jersey about 2:30 p.m., according to a spokesman for the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey.

Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg said it circled the Statue of Liberty before heading north by the East River. Radar contact was lost around the Queensboro Bridge. He said it was not clear why the plane veered toward Manhattan, apparently after traveling farther north, and hit the building on the north side about 12 minutes after takeoff. The plane never got higher than 800 feet, according to Passur, a flight-tracking service.

Pilots describe that area of the East River as a particularly treacherous corridor that tends to be crowded with helicopters. Several witnesses said the plane appeared to be in trouble moments before it crashed. One investigator said initial reports indicated that the aircraft had radioed La Guardia Airport to say that it was running low on fuel.

The plane disintegrated as it hit the building, shaking bricks loose from the facade, and ended up as a smoking wreckage on the street. "The engine with the propeller was two feet inside the window," another investigator said, adding that much of the rest of the plane had fallen to the street outside the building, at 524 East 72nd Street.

The plane bore into an apartment on the 30th floor, which under the building's numbering system is Apt. 40ABG. Dr. Parviz Benhuri, who owns the apartment with his wife, Ilana, said she was at home when the plane blasted through the window and the apartment went up in flames.

"She told me she saw the window come out and the fire comes," he said. "She told me she saw the window coming out and she ran. She's in shock. She's lucky she made it. It's a miracle."

She ran down the stairs and went to the emergency room at NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital/Weill Cornell Medical Center a couple of blocks away.

Three other people walked down from lower floors and were treated for exhaustion, one city official said.

Other witnesses said that the sequence of events leading to the crash unfolded so quickly that they realized only later that noises they had heard must have come from Mr. Lidle's plane.

"It sounded like a truck gearing down," said Kim Quarterman, a doorman at a nearby building. "Then I saw a cloud of smoke."

Jeremy Chassen, a real estate developer who was in an apartment across the street, recognized the droning of an airplane engine - he has taken flight lessons himself.

Joanne Hartlaub, an actress and filmmaker who was working out in a gym across the street, heard explosions and a "loud whooshing noise, like something falling, very loud."

She said she saw "this large object falling from the sky; it was aluminum and it was smoking."

Inside the building that was struck, five construction workers going over renovation plans for an apartment on the 42nd floor looked out the window and the plane bearing down on them. One of the workers, Luis Gonzalez, 23, said it was so close that he could see the pilot's face.

"It was coming right at us," he said. "The whole building shook. Then we ran for the elevator."

Fuel burned on the sidewalk as black smoke rose from the apartments above.

In the penthouse, a housekeeper, Ann Robert, was ironing clothes. "I heard a boom and saw smoke and ashes outside the kitchen window," she said, "and then the painter came running in frantically from working in the baby's room," Ms. Robert said.

Her 21-year-old daughter was also in the apartment, watching television and talking on the telephone. Within seconds, Ms. Robert had grabbed her purse and was hurrying her to get out. "Let's go. Let's go. Let's go," she shouted.

"Death was going through my mind," Ms. Robert said. "When I saw the smoke, I did not know if we would make it out alive." She added, "As I was coming down the stairs I thought that the whole building might come down and that me and my daughter might go at the same time. But once we got past the 30th floor, I said in my mind that maybe we were safe."

The building is a condominium with residents like Marvin R. Shanken, the publisher of Cigar Aficionado and other specialty magazines; Marvin S. Traub, the former head of Bloomingdale's; and Carol Higgins Clark, a mystery writer who is the daughter of Mary Higgins Clark. A dozen lower floors are used by the Hospital for Special Surgery for offices and guest rooms for patients' families.

The building remained closed to residents last night. While structurally sound, a spokeswoman for the Department of Buildings said that there had been extensive damage and, with only one elevator working, it was not suitable for people to return.

For the Yankees, Mr. Lidle's death stirred memories of another player who perished at the controls of his own plane, the catcher Thurman Munson, in 1979. But where Mr. Munson was the team captain, Mr. Lidle was still something of a newcomer.

A 5-foot-11 right-hander who rarely threw his fastball above 90 miles an hour, he was not drafted out of high school and played for three organizations in the minor leagues, including an independent team, before joining the Mets in 1997. He had also played for the Tampa Bay Devil Rays, the Oakland Athletics, the Toronto Blue Jays, the Cincinnati Reds and the Philadelphia Phillies before joining the Yankees.

"He was a good guy, a real competitor," said Brian Cashman, the Yankees' general manager. "He wasn't here long, but I saw him compete for years with different teams, and he had a lot of success. That's one of the reasons why we wanted him."

Mr. Lidle made one memorable start, a victory on Aug. 21 that concluded the Yankees' five-game sweep of the Red Sox in Boston's Fenway Park. He had a 4-3 record with a 5.16 earned run average for the Yankees and made a brief relief appearance in the team's final playoff game on Saturday.

For his career, Lidle was 82-72 with a 4.57 earned run average, pitching in 277 games. He was a free agent and was not expected to return to the Yankees, though he said on Sunday that he hoped to sign a two-year contract this winter.

Mr. Lidle, who was married with a 6-year-old son, lived in Glendora, Calif. He had earned his pilot's license during the last off-season. He said last month that the four-year-old plane had cost $187,000 and had "cool safety features."

"The whole plane has a parachute on it," he 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."

Shortly after his trade to New York from Philadelphia, he flew his plane from a small airport in southern New Jersey to Teterboro. Describing his itinerary in a September interview, he said: "I didn't fly around New York, but I flew straight up north. I don't like to go in the big boys' airspace."

But yesterday, he did. The plane left Teterboro, in Bergen County, at 2:29 p.m., officials said.

Police and fire officials applauded what they said was a fast and efficient response, noting that there were no fatalities beyond the two men in the plane. They said that they too had worried at first that the crash was a terrorist attack.

"We are concerned about the possibility of things being something more than an accident," Police Commissioner Raymond W. Kelly said. "But it seemed clear fairly early it was a small plane."

Gov. George E. Pataki issued a statement saying that the Federal Aviation Administration had issued a temporary flight restriction requiring all planes flying below 1,500 feet to be in communication with air traffic controllers. He said he was asking F.A.A. officials to leave the restrictions in effect while they and officials of the Department of Homeland Security review the rules that apply to private airplanes flying in the New York City area. "New York's airspace should enjoy the same kind of protections as our nation's capital," Mr. Pataki said.