Pitcher's last, deadly flight

Newsday - October 12, 2006

by MELANIE LEFKOWITZ

A single-engine airplane owned by Yankees pitcher Cory Lidle sputtered out of the hazy skies and slammed into the side of an exclusive Manhattan apartment tower yesterday, killing Lidle and a flight instructor but miraculously leaving no one in the building seriously hurt.

The fiery crash 30 floors above the street panicked residents and passersby, who ran as smoke, fire and aircraft parts rained down to the street. It evoked still-fresh flashbacks to Sept. 11, 2001, and sparked fears of terror across the city. As hundreds of firefighters and armor-clad cops flooded the streets and helicopters took to the sky, flames shot out of the building's north side while black smoke billowed up and debris poured down.

Debbie Hersman, a board member with the NTSB, said at a briefing last night that investigators found the bodies of the occupants on the street and that the engine from the aircraft was still in an apartment in the building.

Hersman said the pilot of the aircraft was talking to an air traffic controller for part of the time, telling the controller he was flying up and down the East River. But he declined to maintain contact with the controller.

Hersman gave no cause of the crash.

"What I was seeing was things flying out of the building, which was very reminiscent" of 9/11, said James Trezza, who was walking his dog past the building at 524 E. 72nd St. when the plane struck. "Everyone started running towards Central Park. ... Huge fireballs started coming out. ... It was like, here we go again."

The plane, a Cirrus SR20 registered to Lidle, 34, took off from Teterboro Airport in New Jersey at 2:29 p.m. without filing a flight plan, officials said. A flight plan was not required, however. After circling the Statue of Liberty, it headed north up the East River, Mayor Michael Bloomberg said in an evening news conference. It disappeared from radar near the Queensboro Bridge and a 911 call about the crash was logged at 2:42 p.m., Bloomberg said. Police sources said the California flight instructor who was killed was believed to be Tyler Stanger.

Witnesses told police they heard what sounded like a sputtering engine and that the plane, which investigators say may have just made a U-turn to avoid traveling into LaGuardia Airport's airspace, seemed to try to maneuver away from the building, but to no avail.

According to Laura Brown, a Federal Aviation Administration spokeswoman in Washington, the East River corridor where the plane was flying ends at the northern tip of Roosevelt Island, near where Lidle's plane crashed. "He was about to bump into LaGuardia's airspace," said Brown. "He was going to have to turn around if he was going to stay in the ... corridor."

Brown said no attempt was made to contact controllers for LaGuardia, whose permission the pilot would need to continue flying north. The FAA has no record of a distress call, but she said it's possible that the plane did issue a call to another pilot on another frequency flying in the same area.

On the street below the crash, police said Lidle's passport was found. The pitcher, who earned about $3.3 million from the Yankees and lived in California with his wife, Melanie, and 6-year-old son, Christopher, only recently earned his pilot's license and bought the four-seat plane.

"I think riding a motorcycle without a helmet is a lot more dangerous than being a low-time private pilot," Lidle recently told The Philadelphia Inquirer. "The flying? I'm not worried about it. I'm safe up there. I feel very comfortable with my abilities flying an airplane."

Kevin Lidle, Cory Lidle's twin brother, said on CNN's "Larry King Live" last night that he had spoken to their parents, who were "obviously having a tough time."

"But what can you do? Somehow you hang in there and you get through it," he said. "I've had a lot of calls from friends and family, people calling and crying. And they've released some emotions, and I haven't done that yet. I don't know - I guess I'm in some kind of state of shock."

The plane that crashed yesterday is equipped with a parachute in case of trouble, but yesterday, it apparently did not deploy. The same model plane has been involved in 20 accidents since 1999, according to the National Transportation Safety Board.

"The man was going down and he was trying to pull up, but he didn't have enough power," said Harold Vine, who works at the nearby Gracie Square Hospital. "And then I heard a boom."

Twenty-one people, including 14 firefighters, two police officers and two civilians, were taken to New York-Presbyterian Hospital/Weill Cornell Medical Center with mostly minor injuries. Seven other civilians walked themselves to the hospital, the NTSB said.

Bloomberg said he spoke to the two occupants of the apartment closest to the impact site, who appeared to be unhurt.

"They were a little bit shaken up," he said. "They said they were sitting there, they heard a noise, instantly, the glass breaking, the metal coming in, and they ran to the door."

The mayor continued: "I think we have to say a little prayer for those we lost, two human beings' lives that were snuffed out. But we should also say thanks that it wasn't anything more serious than this."

Bloomberg praised the response of the police and fire departments, which he said worked together "perfectly." The FDNY sent 39 alarm units and about 170 firefighters to tackle the four-alarm high-rise blaze.

Lt. Edward Ryan of Engine Co. 44 was among the first on the scene. When his unit arrived, he said, people were running and pointing up at the building, where debris was coming down. Firefighters took the elevator to the 30th story, hooked up their hoses and began checking each floor. In apartment 40F, they saw what looked like the wheel well of a car, Ryan said.

"There was fire everywhere, and we kept putting fire out," he said.

Some residents of the posh, 50-floor condominium tower known as the Belaire, which was built in 1989 and where larger apartments routinely sell for more than $1 million, were allowed back inside just a few hours after the collision. But in the frightening moments immediately following the crash, they were racing through the rainy, smoke-filled streets, terrified and scrambling to account for their children, neighbors and pets.

At Yankee Stadium, a single candle was lit on the steps as stunned colleagues across the country remembered Lidle, who spoke often about how safe he believed it was to fly.

"He wasn't just my client. He was probably my closest friend," said Jordan Feagan, Lidle's agent.

Though Bloomberg said it did not immediately look like the pilot had violated airspace restrictions, which permit small planes over the East and Hudson rivers, the crash almost immediately sparked criticisms of rules that allow small planes to fly over Manhattan at all.

Rep. Peter King, chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, said it was inconceivable that a small plane could fly over one of the nation's most densely populated areas with virtually no restrictions whatsoever.

"Today, it's terrible that several people were killed," King said. "But this is also a signal to terrorists as to how they could attack Manhattan. There is no restricted air space along the East River and the Hudson River. Just think of the high-profile targets you have off both of those rivers, from the United Nations to the Freedom Tower being constructed off the Hudson River."

Two investigators from the National Transportation Safety Board arrived in New Jersey late yesterday to start the agency's probe into the fatal crash.

"It's sad for the people that passed," said Myndie Friedman, who works at New York Presbyterian Hospital, "but then again, I'm relieved that another plane didn't hit at 3:06."