50 Killed in Plane Crash Near Buffalo

Published: February 13, 2009, New York Times

Federal investigators have retrieved both “black boxes” from a Continental Airlines plane that crashed late Thursday night near Buffalo, killing 50 people. The boxes — the flight data recorder and cockpit voice recorder — were found in good condition and should reach the laboratories of the National Transportation Safety Board in Washington this afternoon for analysis, officials said.

The plane, which crashed in the hamlet of Clarence Center, N.Y., carried 44 passengers, a crew of 4 and an off-duty airline employee on a flight from Newark to Buffalo, officials said. Everyone aboard the plane and one person in a house destroyed by the plane was killed, said Chris Collins, the Erie County executive.

Two others in the house, a 57-year-old woman and her 22-year-old daughter, suffered minor injuries and were taken to a nearby hospital, where they were treated and released, officials said.

Among those on the flight was Alison L. Des Forges, a historian and human rights advocate who documented the 1994 genocide in Rwanda and investigated related issues in Burundi and Democratic Republic of the Congo, according to Emma Daly, communications director of Human Rights Watch in New York City.

Also on the flight was Beverly Eckert, the widow of Sean Rooney, a Buffalo native who died at the World Trade Center in the terror attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

Ms. Eckert was on her way to Buffalo for a weekend celebration of what would have been her husband’s 58th birthday, and had planned to take part in the presentation of a scholarship award at Canisius High School that she had established in his honor, The Buffalo News reported.

Ms. Eckert met President Obama last week at the White House, along with other relatives of people killed in the 2001 attacks or the bombing of the U.S.S. Cole.

Speaking at the White House late Friday morning, Mr. Obama said that Ms. Eckert “was an inspiration to me and to so many others, and I pray that her family finds peace and comfort in the hard days ahead.”

He said that the crash reminds the nation of the fragility of life and the value of each day.

The New York Times

Continental Airlines said the pilot of the flight, Continental Connection Flight 3407, was Capt. Marvin Renslow; the first officer was Rebecca Shaw; flight attendants were Matilda Quintero and Donna Prisco; and the off-duty employee traveling on the flight was Capt. Joseph Zuffoletto. The flight was operated by Colgan Air under contract to Continental.

Maddy Loftus, 24, from Parsippany, N.J., was on the flight traveling to a reunion of the women’s ice hockey team at Buffalo State University, said Jeff Ventura, the sports information director at the school. Ms. Loftus played forward for Buffalo State from 2002 to 2004 and transferred to St. Mary’s University in Minnesota where she finished her college career.

After the crash, other pilots flying in the area reported icing on their planes, and there was some speculation in the news media that the weather at the time of the crash may have played a role. The airplane that crashed was certified for flying into icing conditions, and the crews of such planes are trained to deal with ice.

No one in the surrounding houses was injured, officials said.Photo: Gary Wiepert/Reuters

“This is a tragic day in the history of New York,” New York Gov. David A. Paterson said at a news conference. “This is a difficult hour for the families.”

Governor Paterson described his discussions with families of the victims. “I saw a woman whose fiancé was killed in the plane crash, she has three little daughters,” he said. “A woman a native in China, a researcher living in Buffalo and a doctor, she doesn’t have any family members here. She lost her husband.”

Referring to Ms. Eckert, he said: “Now she and her husband, Sean, have been lost in different tragedies, one in an attack on our country.”

He said he saw the family of Ms. Des Forges, whom he described as “a noted writer, a foremost expert on Rwanda, a great human being and a human services coordinator.” And he said he spoke with a state trooper who lost a cousin.

An intense fire at the site of the crash, fueled by a natural gas leak, initially made it difficult for the investigators to retrieve the black boxes, according to Steven Chealander, a member of the safety board who is acting as spokesman for the crash investigation. Fourteen investigators from the board are at work seeking the cause of the crash, he said in a news conference Friday morning.

The airplane is a relatively new model, a Bombardier Dash 8 Q400 with two turboprop engines and room for 74 passengers. Colgan has been operating that type of plane since February 2008. Its flight data recorder should have captured hundreds of data points each second about the performance of the airplane and its condition, which can aid investigators in reconstructing the accident. While there apparently was no sign of trouble in the communications between the crew and ground controllers during the flight, the cockpit voice recorder could provide information from conversations among the crew, as well as other sounds that their microphones may have picked up.

Tony Tatro, who lives near the crash site, told CNN that he was driving home when the plane passed about 75 feet overhead, with its nose pitched lower than normal and its wings tilted. The plane struck the ground moments later, he said.

The plane crashed about 10:20 p.m. Eastern time, five minutes before it was due to land. David Bissonette, the emergency coordinator for Erie County, told reporters around 4 a.m. that the plane had made “a direct hit” on the house at 6038 Long Street in Clarence Center, part of the Town of Clarence northeast of Buffalo. The site is about five miles from the airport.

“It’s remarkable that it only took one house,” he said. “It could have easily taken the whole neighborhood.”

Mr. Bissonnette said the only piece of the plane that remained recognizable was the tail. The investigation, he said, would be “painstaking” because of the amount of damage to the plane and the house.

Mr. Collins said that about 12 nearby houses were evacuated after the crash and that a limited state of emergency had been declared.

Sandra Baker, who lives on Railroad Street, two blocks from the site of the crash on Thursday, said: “It was just like a huge great big crash, a boom.”

Both of her sons, volunteer firefighters, went to the scene.

“There was this banging sound” before the crash, she said. It was followed by a boom, then a dark cloud and flames and the smell of fuel and fire.

A joint investigation was being conducted overnight by the State Police, the Erie County Sheriff’s Office and the Niagara Frontier Transportation Authority.Photo: Charles Anderson/Associated Press

Another woman who lives nearby described the sound before the crash as “a loud roar over my house.”

“It was like the whole house shook,” said the woman, Jennifer Clark, who also lives on Railroad Street. “Then there was silence.”

Ms. Clark said she looked out of her window and saw a ball of flames rising into the sky.

She woke up her husband and said, “I think a plane just crashed.”

“I don’t know,” she said. “I feel bad for the people on the plane and their families. I feel bad for the firemen who have to recover the remains of those poor people.”

Ms. Baker described the town as “small-town U.S.A.,” a place that will reel from what she was sure would be the biggest tragedy the town has ever seen.

The crash will be investigated jointly by the New York State Police, the Erie County Sheriff’s Office and the Niagara Frontier Transportation Authority as well as the federal officials from the safety board, who will take the lead.

At a command center where officials gathered after the accident, Chris Kausner told CNN that his sister was on the flight. He said she was connecting from Jacksonville, Fla., where she was a law student. When a reporter asked Mr. Kausner how his family was taking the news, he said: “I heard my mother make a sound into the phone that I had never heard before. So, not good.”

In the neighborhood where the crash occurred, flames rose high above the bare trees and neat houses overnight. Neighbors rushed from their homes to the carnage, through a swell of emergency lights and sirens.

Brendan Biddlecom, who lives a few blocks from the crash, made his way with other neighbors.

“I didn’t get too close,” Mr. Biddlecom said. “I didn’t want to get too close. It was clear what was going on.”

By 2:30 a.m., the police had set up checkpoints around the neighborhood and had cleared the immediate vicinity of the crash. The smell of burning fuel and rubber was still thick in the air.

Scott Bylewski, the Clarence town supervisor, said he heard the crash from his home about a half-mile away. “I took a look from my house and the sky was red,” Mr. Bylewski said at the 4 a.m. news conference. “I know when I go home, I’m going to give my wife and kids a kiss.”

Colgan, the operator of the plane, also flies feeder routes for US Airways and United Airlines. Colgan’s Web site said the airline operates about 50 aircraft, including 15 of the Q400 model, and recently reached an agreement with Continental to add 15 more aircraft. Colgan, which has flown for Continental since 1997, is owned by Pinnacle Airlines Corporation, based in Memphis. Pinnacle has about 6,000 employees around North America, 1,800 of them in Memphis.

The last fatal crash involving a scheduled carrier in the United States was a ComAir regional jet in Lexington, Ky., in August 2006. The crew attempted to take off from a runway that was too short; 47 passengers and 2 of the 3 crew members were killed.

During the day on Thursday, Continental posted a notice on its Web site that its operations would be affected by the winter storm on the East Coast, including the Buffalo and New York City areas.

The storm caused delays of up to five hours on arrivals at Newark Liberty International Airport on Thursday, according to the Federal Aviation Administration. That was unusual even for that airport, which routinely has some of the worst delays of any destination in the country.

Early on Friday, the F.A.A.’s Web site showed delays at Newark of three hours and 50 minutes.

Micheline Maynard contributed reporting from Detroit, Michael D. Regan from Clarence Center, N.Y., Trymaine Lee and Liz Robbins from New York and David Stout from Washington.

Source : New York  Times

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