Yankee player dies as plane hits building

Manhattan crash briefly raises fear of terror attack

By Thomas S. Mulligan and Ellen Barry
Los Angeles Times / October 12, 2006

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NEW YORK -- A small plane carrying New York Yankees pitcher Cory Lidle and his flight instructor slammed into a luxury high-rise on Manhattan's Upper East Side yesterday afternoon, exploding in a fireball that killed both men and engulfed two floors of the building in flames.

Authorities termed the 2:42 p.m. crash an accident, but it evoked emotional reactions from New Yorkers who vividly recall the terror attacks on the World Trade Center a little more than five years ago.

President Bush was alerted to the crash, and Air Force jets were scrambled over several cities as a precaution, including two F-15 fighter jets from Otis Air Force Base in Bourne.

Residents of the 42-story red-brick building were quickly evacuated, streaming down the stairwells into a crowd of emergency crews, drilled for fast response in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks.

The impact at the 30th and 31st floors caused flaming debris to rain down the north side of the building, known as The Belaire and located at 72d Street and York Avenue, overlooking the East River. The building is down the block from the Sotheby's auction house.

The bodies of both victims were found on the street, Mayor Michael Bloomberg said in a news conference. CNN, citing an FBI official, reported that Lidle's passport also was found on the street.

Eleven firefighters were treated for minor injuries. Two people escaped unharmed despite being inside an apartment that was penetrated by parts of the aircraft. The two ``were a little bit shaken," Bloomberg told reporters. ``They were sitting there, and they heard a noise, glass breaking, and they ran out the door and into the hall." He said the plane's engine was later found in one of the apartments.

Lidle, 34, of West Covina, Calif., had earned his pilot's license less than a year ago. It was not clear whether he or the instructor, who had not been identified as of late last night, was at the controls. The plane was Lidle's, and was identified as a Cirrus SR20, a single-engine, four-seater aircraft made of lightweight composite materials.

The plane is noteworthy for what its manufacturer, Cirrus Design, calls ``a final level of defense" -- the Cirrus Airframe Parachute System, a parachute for the entire plane. It is not known whether any attempt was made to deploy the parachute before the crash.

Newsday reported that the SR20 has been involved in 20 accidents in which at least 15 people died over the past seven years.

In a news conference last night, Debbie Hersman of the National Transportation Safety Board said that Lidle had purchased the plane, a 2002 model, in June. Hersman said that Lidle had a private pilot's license to fly single-engine planes, which he received in February.

Bloomberg did not identify either of the passengers during his news conference, but he said the student pilot, presumed to be Lidle, had about 75 hours of flying time.

The two had taken off at 2:29 p.m. from Teterboro Airport, about 12 miles away in New Jersey, and had circled the Statue of Liberty before turning north up the East River, Bloomberg said. The afternoon was overcast and threatening but did not give way to rain until after the crash.

Federal Aviation Administration officials said the pilot did not need to radio air-traffic controllers in New York, because he was flying under what is called VSF, Visual Flight Rules, which do not require such contact. Bloomberg said private aircraft are allowed to fly over the rivers but must seek permission before crossing into Manhattan airspace.

A witness identified as Zenel Perezic told CNN that the airplane seemed to be in distress and its engines ``sounded as though they were choking" moments before the crash.

Joanne Hartlaub was on a stationary bike in the gym in the building opposite when she saw something falling; it looked like metal, but she couldn't tell what it was.

``I didn't see wings. I just saw a big engine." At that moment, she said, ``I was insane with fear that we were being attacked."

She saw the plane ``smash into the side of the building and blow out all the windows. Then all sorts of debris was falling down on the street." She looked down and saw that the fuel had splashed on the street and ignited. ``There was fire all over the ground within seconds."

Three hours later, Hartlaub said, she was still shaking. ``I've been shaking all day."

She was near ground zero on Sept. 11, she said, and saw the first plane fly into the towers.

Elias Taveras, 13, was in his science class three blocks away when smoke started blowing in the windows. It felt as close, he said, ``as if the fire was actually in our school."

The children all reacted differently, he said. ``Some people got nervous, some people got excited."

Although most of his classmates dispersed, Elias wandered to the scene to take a look. ``I was like, Oh my God, it's like what happened at the World Trade Tower."

Lidle, a journeyman pitcher who had joined the Yankees this past summer, pitched his last game on Saturday when the Detroit Tigers eliminated New York from the playoffs.

Lidle was a replacement player when major league ballplayers threatened to go on strike in the spring of 1995. He and other replacement players who played in the big leagues were resented by some of their colleagues.

Lidle was also one of the few active ballplayers players to criticize superstar Barry Bonds for his alleged use of steroids. ``I don't want to see him break records," Lidle said last spring.

A month ago, The New York Times ran an article about Lidle's love of flying. The team has worried about flying since losing its captain, Thurman Munson, when the plane he was flying crashed in 1979. Lidle told the reporter he was safe in the air. ``The whole plane has a parachute on it," Lidle said. ``If you're up in the air and something goes wrong, you pull that parachute, and the whole plane goes down slowly."

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