NEW YORK—A small, single-engine plane believed to have been piloted by New York Yankees pitcher Cory Lidle veered off course and slammed into a 50-story building on New York's ritzy Upper East Side Wednesday.
The bizarre crash killed Lidle and another occupant of the plane, reported to have been his flight instructor. The incident and its riveting images of a New York high-rise in flames, triggered a rush of hysteria about another terror attack and an inadvertent drill of U.S. preparedness.
The Yankee organization confirmed that the 34-year-old Lidle, a pilot for just eight months, was among the victims. Lidle had enmeshed himself in controversy following the Yankees' hasty exodus in the first round of this year's American League playoffs.
An enthusiastic amateur pilot, he had recently obtained a temporary certificate from the Federal Aviation Administration to operate the four-seat Cirrus Design Corp. SR20 aircraft in Lakeland, Fla. In a feature story in the New York Times last month, Lidle remembered that former Yankee captain Thurman Munson died while flying a plane in 1979, and bragged that his new plane was is equipped with a huge parachute. If something goes wrong, he said, "you pull that parachute and the whole plane goes down slowly."
The plane was flying through an eight-mile corridor over the East River where small aircraft and helicopters are allowed to fly up to an altitude of 1,100 feet, FAA officials said. Then it turned sharply westward and hit the building at about the 40th floor, witnesses said.
New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg said the plane took off from the airport in Teterboro, N.J., circled the Statue of Liberty and headed up the East River framing Manhattan in the moments before the crash.
Bloomberg said: "It's a pretty light plane, so not a lot of damage was done to the building." Despite video showing flames shooting from the upper floors, only the engine crashed into its million dollar condominiums. The rest of the plane fell to the street, the mayor said.
It was "lucky that it's not more than two people" dead, he added, attributing the break to an hour when few residents were home. He said two residents living where the plane hit were "sitting there, heard a noise, instantly glass breaking, metal coming in, and they ran to the door and out into the hall" to safety.
"They were a little bit shaken up," Bloomberg said.
While the apartment was still in flames, the North American Aerospace Defense Command scrambled fighter jets over several U.S. cities. The FAA barred flights within one mile of the crash site and 1,500 feet above.
Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff phoned New York Gov. George Pataki a little later, a Chertoff spokeswoman said, "and reinforced that there is no specific, credible intelligence suggesting an imminent threat to the homeland at this time."
FAA spokeswoman Diane Spitaliere said the aircraft was operating under visual flight rules, meaning that the pilot was not required to be in touch with federal air traffic controllers. Under these conditions, pilots must assess themselves whether visibility is adequate.
According to the FAA, the skies were hazy and the cloud ceiling was at 1,800 feet at the time of the accident. Visibility was nine miles and the wind 13 knots.
Deborah Hersman, a member of the National Transportation Safety Board, flew to New York to launch a full investigation.
Lidle, whom the Yankees acquired in a trade in July, had been embroiled this week in controversy with radio talk show hosts over comments he made after the Detroit Tigers needed only four games to oust them from the playoffs last week.
Lidle told the New York Daily News that "we got matched up with a team that, I think, was a little more ready to play than we were."
He suggested that the Yankees, who clinched their division early, might have been "in cruise control a little bit too much."
When he learned that a sports talk radio program had jumped on his remarks as a slam on Yankee Manager Joe Torre, Lidle took it upon himself to call into the "Mike and Mad Dog" radio show Monday on New York's WFAN Radio.
"You guys are taking a little bit of information and running with it and twisting it," he told hosts Mike Francesca and Chris Russo. "We have a first class team, first class manager."
Lidle told Francesca and Russo that he was "sitting here trying to enjoy my day in New York" when a friend alerted him to the radio show.
"First off, no Yankee fan should enjoy the day in New York," Russo told him. "The Yankees just got embarrassed. You got a manager who might get fired who's been there 11 years. If I'm a Yankee, now I'm in hiding. I'm not enjoying any day in New York."
"So I'm not allowed to enjoy this day in New York?" Lidle asked.
Russo shot back: "I don't know a Yankee fan who's enjoying the day to be honest with you."
"I want to win as much as anybody," Lidle said. "But what am I supposed to do, go cry in my apartment for the next two weeks?"
Lidle, a right-handed pitcher and Southern California native, had been married for nine years to the former Melanie Varela. They have a 6-year-old son, Christopher Taylor.
Since being picked up by the Minnesota Twins as an undrafted free agent, making his Major League debut in 1997, Lidle had played for the New York Mets, the Tampa Bay Devil Rays, the Oakland Athletics, Toronto Blue Jays, Cincinnati Reds and the Phillies.
Torre issued a statement calling Lidle's death "a terrible shock," and called Lidle "a good teammate and a great competitor."
Yankee captain Derek Jeter called Lidle "a great man" who was known as a baseball player, but was "more importantly, a husband and a father."
The plane crashed at 524 East 72nd Street, a 183-unit high-rise building known as the Belaire. Among the residents are Carol Higgins Clark, a mystery writer and the daughter of bestselling author Mary Higgins Clark, and Rocky Aoki, founder of the Benihana steakhouse chain.
Julio Garcia, 33, who works at the Hi Top Cleaners a block away from the crash site, said he was inside the store when he heard the sound "of an airplane flying very low, then a bang like a car crash."
He went out onto the street, saw black smoke billowing from the building and "immediately thought of 9/11 and terrorism."
Students at the Lycee Francais on nearby 75th Street, which houses children from pre-K to 12th grade, learned of the crash over the Internet.
"Some of the sixth-graders started crying," figuring it was a terrorist attack, said Alex Tuchmuntz, 15.
(Rodriguez reported from New York; Gordon and Taylor from Washington. McClatchy correspondents Lisa Zagaroli, Margaret Talev and researcher Tish Wells also contributed to this report.)
(c) 2006, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.
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