A small plane with New York Yankees pitcher Cory Lidle aboard crashed into a 50-story condominium tower today on Manhattan's Upper East Side, killing at least two people -- including Lidle -- and raining flaming debris on sidewalks, authorities said.
Federal Aviation Administration records show the single-engine plane was registered to Lidle, and FBI reports show that Lidle's passport was found at the scene. The FBI believed Lidle was the only person aboard the plane and the other three deaths occurred inside the building.
The twin-engine plane came through a hazy, cloudy sky and hit the 20th floor of the Belaire -- a red-brick tower overlooking the East River, about 5 miles from the World Trade Center site -- with a loud bang, touching off a raging fire that cast a pillar of black smoke over the city and sent flames shooting from four windows on two adjoining floors.
Large crowds gathered in the street in the largely wealthy New York neighborhood, with many people in tears and some trying to reach loved ones by cell phone.
"I was worried the building would explode, so I got out of there fast," said Lori Claymont, who fled an adjoining building in sweatpants.
Young May Cha, a 23-year-old Cornell University medical student, said she was walking back from the grocery store down 72nd Street when she saw an object out of the corner of her eye.
"I just saw something come across the sky and crash into that building," she said. Cha said there appeared to be smoke coming from behind the aircraft, and "it looked like it was flying erratically for the short time that I saw it."
"The explosion was very small. I was not threatened for my life," she said.
Richard Drutman, a professional photographer who lives on the 11th floor, said he was talking on the telephone when he felt the building shake.
"There was a huge explosion. I looked out my window and saw what appeared to be pieces of wings, on fire, falling from the sky," Drutman said. He and his girlfriend quickly evacuated the building.
The plane left New Jersey's Teterboro Airport, just across the Hudson River from the city, at 2:30 p.m., about 15 minutes before the crash, according to officials at the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which operates the airport. But they said they did not know where the aircraft was headed.
FAA spokeswoman Diane Spitaliere said the plane was apparently not in contact with air traffic controllers; pilots flying small planes by sight are not required to be in contact.
The National Transportation Safety Board sent a team to investigate.
Former NTSB director Jim Hall said in a telephone interview that he doesn't understand how a plane could get so close to a New York City building after Sept. 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," Hall said.
Mystery writer Carol Higgins Clark, daughter of author Mary Higgins Clark, lives on the 38th floor and was coming home in a cab when she saw the smoke.
"Thank goodness I wasn't at my apartment writing at the time," she said. She described the building's residents as a mix of actors, doctors, lawyers, writers and people with second homes.
Sgt. Claudette Hutchinson, a spokeswoman for the North American Aerospace Defense Command in Colorado Springs, Colo., said fighter jets "are airborne over numerous U.S. cities and while every indication is that this is an accident, we see this as a prudent measure at this time."
However, all three New York City-area airports continued to operate normally, FAA spokesman Jim Peters said. In Washington, White House spokesman Tony Fratto said neither President Bush nor Vice President Dick Cheney was moved to secure locations.
"All indications are that this is an unfortunate accident," said Yolanda Clark, a spokeswoman for Homeland Security's Transportation Security Administration. She said there was "no specific or credible intelligence suggesting an imminent threat to the homeland at this time."
The crash struck fear in a city devastated by the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. Sirens echoed across the neighborhood as about 170 firefighters rushed in along with emergency workers and ambulances. Broken glass and debris were strewn around the neighborhood.
"There's a sense of helplessness," said Sandy Teller, watching from his apartment a block away. "Cots and gurneys, waiting. It's a mess."
The tower was built in the late 1980s and is situated near Sotheby's auction house. It has 183 apartments, many of which sell for more than $1 million.
Several lower floors are occupied by doctors and administrative offices, as well as guest facilities for family members of patients at the Hospital for Special Surgery, hospital spokeswoman Phyllis Fisher said.
No patients were in the high-rise building, and operations at the hospital a block away were not affected, Fisher said.
Information from The Associated Press was used in this report.