- The Washington Times - Thursday, October 12, 2006

NEW YORK - New York Yankees pitcher Cory Lidle and his flight instructor were killed yesterday after he crashed his Cirrus SR20 into a Manhattan high-rise yesterday, igniting a four-alarm fire in the 40-story building and sparking fears of a terrorist attack.

A National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) spokeswoman said that the plane was owned by Mr. Lidle, 34, and that Mr. Lidle’s passport was found on the street outside the building at 524 E. 72nd St. on the city’s Upper East Side, about a half-block from the East River. Mr. Lidle’s death was confirmed last night by the Yankees, and the second death was confirmed by New York Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg.

“This is a terrible and shocking tragedy that has stunned the entire Yankees organization,” team owner George Steinbrenner said, offering condolences to Mr. Lidle’s wife, Melanie, and 6-year-old son, Christopher.

“It’s very tragic,” said Mr. Bloomberg at a press conference at nearby Sotheby’s Auction House.

The plane was traveling from Teterboro Airport in New Jersey over the East River at about 2:45 p.m. when it veered off course just 15 minutes after takeoff and crashed into the Belaire Condominiums at about the 30th floor. First-responders told CNN that they found the bodies of Mr. Lidle and his instructor outside the apartment building.

The building was evacuated. More than 20 people were hospitalized, most were among the nearly 200 firefighters who doused the blaze in about an hour.

An official from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) said the plane put out a distress call, but it was too early to determine what might have caused the crash.

But for a time yesteday afternoon, when details were sketchy, the crash reawakened fears of terrorism among New Yorkers and dredged up memories of September 11, 2001, when first reports said a small plane crashed into the World Trade Center, just five miles from yesterday’s crash site.

A blond woman who did not give her name leaned on a parked car and sobbed into the rain: “Oh my God, it was just like September 11. It was so scary.”

The skies over the Midtown neighborhood were filled with police, medevac and news helicopters, while the streets below were clogged with emergency responders, which have been reassessing their procedures since September 11.

“It was really loud; it sounded like a truck going over a steel plate bump, really loud,” said a Fox News cameraman who was about three blocks away working on another story when the plane hit the building.

While flames leaped from two stories of the red-brick building that houses more than 180 luxury residences, witnesses turned to their cell phones. Most were describing memories of September 11 where they were on the day, how this revived that feeling of panic and how relieved they were that this was an accident.

One man yelled into his cellular phone: “They said this was an accident, but that’s what they said about the World Trade Center, too.”

The scene was just about a mile from the United Nations, where delegates were debating their response to North Korea’s claim to have conducted a nuclear test. Within minutes of the accident, U.N. security told the assembled diplomats that there had been an incident and that it was being monitored.

FAA spokeswoman Diane Spitaliere said the aircraft was traveling along an 8-mile corridor over the East River, where helicopters and fixed-wing aircraft are allowed to fly below 1,100 feet under visual flight rules meaning they are not required to file a flight plan or talk to air-traffic control.

“They should not be flying near buildings,” Miss Spitaliere said. “And they should not be flying below a thousand feet.”

“It’s the pilots’ responsibility to pilot the plane and to watch where he’s going, to be cognizant of other aircraft in the area,” Miss Spitaliere said.

The Belaire Condominiums is the tallest building in its immediate neighborhood.

Laura Brown, a second FAA spokeswoman, said that the skies were overcast but that conditions were generally good, with visibility at nine miles and wind coming from the east at 13 knots.

A California native and a pilot for only seven months, Mr. Lidle recently bought the 2002 four-seat airplane with less than 400 air hours on it for $187,000. In his 10-year Major League career, Mr. Lidle also played for the New York Mets, Tampa Bay Devil Rays, Oakland Athletics, Philadelphia Phillies, Cincinnati Reds and Toronto Blue Jays.

Mary Varela, Mr. Lidle’s mother-in-law, told reporters that her daughter wasn’t home and they weren’t certain if she knew about the crash.

“This is a tragedy for everybody involved,” she said through tears.

Kevin Lidle, Mr. Lidle’s twin brother, said on CNN last night that he had spoken to their parents, who were “obviously having a tough time.”

Federal officials worked furiously during the afternoon to determine whether the crash was terrorist-related, and the U.S. military scrambled fighter jets over major U.S. cities as a “prudent measure,” Sgt. 1st Class Gail Braymen said.

“There is no nexus to terror,” said William Knocke, Homeland Security spokesman. “All indications are that it was a terrible accident.”

President Bush was notified of the crash and monitored reports from New York, but he was not moved to another location, a White House spokesman said.

Still, former NTSB director Jim Hall told the Associated Press in a telephone interview that he does not understand how a plane could get so close to a New York City high-rise building after September 11.

“We’re under a high alert, and you would assume that if something like this happened, people would have known about it before it occurred, not after,” he said.

• Audrey Hudson, Jerry Seper, Stephen Dinan and Bill Gertz contributed to this report from Washington.

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