- The Washington Times - Friday, February 13, 2009

UPDATED:

A federal official says the crew of a commuter plane that crashed near Buffalo discussed “significant ice buildup” on the wings and windshield before the crash.

National Transportation Safety Board spokesman Steve Chealander also says the twin turboprop aircraft went through a “severe pitch and roll” after positioning its flaps for a landing.

The twin turboprop aircraft — Continental Connection Flight 3407 from Newark, N.J. — was coming in for a landing when it went down in light snow and fog about 10:20 p.m. Thursday, about five miles short of the Buffalo Niagara International Airport.

Witnesses heard the plane sputtering before it plunged squarely through the roof of the house, its tail section visible through flames shooting at least 50 feet high.

“The whole sky was lit up orange,” said Bob Dworak, who lives less than a mile from the crash site. “All the sudden, there was a big bang, and the house shook.”

To hear the audio of air traffic control, click here.

The plane was carrying a four-member crew and an off-duty pilot. Among the 44 passengers killed was a woman whose husband died in the World Trade Center attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, as well as two members of jazz musician Chuck Mangione’s band. One person in the home was killed, and two others inside, Karen Wielinski, 57, and her 22-year-old daughter, Jill, escaped with minor injuries.

Federal investigators searched through the wreckage of the plane and demolished house for the black box recorders that could shed light on what went wrong, but they said the smoldering debris was still too hot to look for bodies.

No mayday call came from the pilot before the crash, according to a recording of air traffic control’s radio messages captured by the Web site LiveATC.net. Neither the controller nor the pilot showed concern that anything was out of the ordinary as the airplane was asked to fly at 2,300 feet.

A minute later, the controller tried to contact the plane but heard no response. After a pause, he tried to contact the plane again.

Eventually he told an unidentified listener to contact authorities on the ground in the Clarence area.

Erie County Emergency Coordinator David Bissonette said it appeared the plane “dove directly on top of the house.”

“It was a direct hit,” Bissonette said. “It’s remarkable that it only took one house. As devastating as that is, it could have wiped out the entire neighborhood.”

The 74-seat Q400 Bombardier aircraft, operated by Colgan Air, was flying from Newark Liberty International Airport in New Jersey and preparing to land at Buffalo Niagara International Airport.

FBI spokesman Richard Kolko said there is “no indication of any security related event” that brought the plane down.

“Michelle and I are deeply saddened to hear of the tragic accident outside of Buffalo last night. Our hearts go out to the families and friends who lost loved ones. I want to thank the brave first responders who arrived immediately to try and save lives and who are continuing to ensure the safety of everyone in the area. We pray for all those who have been touched by this terrible tragedy to find peace and comfort in the hard days ahead,” President Obama said.

Officials of Colgan Air had earlier said 48 people were on the plane. It now appears the plane was carrying 44 passengers, four crew members and one off-duty pilot.

Pinnacle Airlines says the pilot was Capt. Marvin Renslow. Pinnacle is the parent company of Colgan Air.

The first officer was Rebecca Shaw. Flight attendants were Matilda Quintero and Donna Prisco.

Pinnacle says the off-duty crew member was Capt. Joseph Zuffoletto.

The National Transportation Safety Board has 18 investigators on the ground, said Robert Gibbs, White House spokesman.

A spokeswoman for the Department of Homeland Security in Washington, said there was no indication terrorism was involved.

“All indications are that this is an air-safety event,” said spokeswoman Amy Kudwa.

The fire is still burning and NTSB spokesman Steve Chilander said that while investigators have been deployed, they cannot retrieve the black box or both recorders until cleared to do so by firefighters.

“Our intent is to get it out this morning and back to Washington,” Mr. Chilander said at a press briefing.

He declined to speculate on any cause that might have brought down the commuter plane.

“We don’t have any factual information except that the plane is down and it hit a house,” Mr. Chilander said.

Earlier in the day, just hours after the crash, the task of retrieving remains had to wait.

“It’s still a hot scene,” Clarence emergency control director Dave Bissonette said. “The fuselage lies right on the footprint of the house.”

Prior to the crash, the voice of a female pilot on Continental Flight 3407 could be heard communicating with air traffic controllers, according to a recording of the Buffalo air traffic control’s radio messages shortly before the crash captured by the Web site www.liveatc.net.

“You need to find if anything is on the ground,” the controller says. “All I can tell you is the aircraft is over the marker (landing beacon), and we’re not talking to them now.”

Federal officials reported Thursday night that the crash occurred during “inclement weather,” The Washington Times has learned.

After the crash, at least two pilots are heard saying they have been picking up ice on their wings.

“We’ve been getting ice since 20 miles south of the airport,” one says.

While residents of the neighborhood where the plane went down were used to planes rumbling overhead, witnesses said this one sounded louder than usual, sputtered and made some odd noises.

After hearing the crash, Dworak drove over to take a look, and “all we were seeing was 50 to 100 foot flames and a pile of rubble on the ground. It looked like the house just got destroyed the instant it got hit.”

Witness Tony Tatro said he saw the plane flying low and knew it was in trouble.

“It was not spiraling at all. The left wing was a little low,” he told WGRZ-TV.

Twelve homes were evacuated near the crash site. The tail or part of a wing was visible through flames and thick smoke that engulfed the scene.

Erie County Executive Chris Collins said the plane was carrying 5,000 pounds of fuel and apparently exploded on impact.

Firefighters got as close to the plane as they could, he said. “They were shouting out to see if there were any survivors on the plane. Truly a very heroic effort, but there were no survivors.”

It was the first fatal crash of a commercial airliner in the United States since Aug. 27, 2006, when 49 people were killed after a Comair jetliner took off from a Lexington, Ky., runway that was too short.

About 30 relatives and others who arrived at the airport in the overnight hours were escorted into a private area and then taken by bus to a senior citizens center in the neighboring town of Cheektowaga, where counselors and representatives from Continental waited to help.

“At this time, the full resources of Colgan Air’s accident response team are being mobilized and will be devoted to cooperating with all authorities responding to the accident and to contacting family members and providing assistance to them,” the statement said.

“Continental extends its deepest sympathy to the family members and loved ones of those involved in this accident,” said Larry Kellner, chairman and CEO of Continental Airlines, in a later statement. “Our thoughts and prayers are with all of the family members and loved ones of those involved in the flight 3407 tragedy.”

Manassas, Va.-based Colgan Air said in a statement that airline personnel and local authorities were working to confirm the number of people on board and their identities.

Mr. Obama, during remarks at the White House later in the morning, said that “tragic events such as these remind us of the fragility of life and the value of every single day.”

“One person who understood that well was Beverly Eckert, who was on that flight and who I met with just a few days ago,” he said.

Mrs. Eckert’s husband, Sean Rooney, was killed on Sept. 11, 2001, when terrorists flew planes into the World Trade Center in New York. She founded an advocacy group, Voices of September 11, to care for those who lost loves ones that day.

Mrs. Eckert met with the president, along with other families of terrorism victims, last Friday at the White House, where he assured them of his intent to bring terrorists to justice.

“She was on her way to Buffalo, to mark what would have been her husband’s birthday and launch a scholarship in his memory. So she 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,” Mr. Obama said.

As family members of the victims trickled in to the airport in the overnight hours, they were escorted by airport personnel to a private area.

Chris Kausner, believing his sister was on the plane, rushed to a hastily established command center after calling his vacationing mother in Florida to break the news.

“To tell you the truth, I heard my mother make a noise on the phone that I’ve never heard before. So not good, not good,” he told reporters.

The plane was carrying 5,000 pounds of fuel and apparently exploded on impact, Erie County Executive Chris Collins said.

Firefighters got as close to the plane as they could, he said. “They were shouting out to see if there were any survivors on the plane. Truly a very heroic effort, but there were no survivors,” Collins said.

It was the first fatal crash of a commercial airliner in the United States since Aug. 27, 2006, when 49 people were killed after a Comair jetliner mistakenly took off from a Lexington, Ky., runway that was too short.

Clarence is a growing eastern suburb of Buffalo, largely residential but with rural stretches. The crash site is a street of older, single-family homes which apparently back up to wooded area.

While the fire was contained, smoke still billowed over the scene about four hours later. Houses in the neighborhood are only about 20-25 feet apart.

“The fact that the damage is limited to the one residence is really amazing,” said state police spokeswoman Rebecca Gibbons.

The crash came less than a month after a US Airways pilot guided his crippled plane to a landing in the Hudson River off Manhattan, saving the lives of all 155 people aboard. Birds had apparently disabled both its engines.

On Dec. 20, a Continental Airlines plane veered off a runway and slid into a snowy field at the Denver airport, injuring 38 people.

Continental’s release said relatives and friends of those on Flight 3407 who wanted to give or receive information about those on board could telephone a special family assistance number, 1-800-621-3263.

Washington Times staff writers Audrey Hudson and Jon Ward contributed to this report. Associated Press writers Carolyn Thompson in Buffalo, Linda Franklin in Dallas, Daniel Yee in Atlanta, Ron Powers in Washington and Cristian Salazar and Jennifer Peltz in New York also contributed to this article.

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