Flight 3407 Plummeted Straight Down, Killing 50

Survivor describes harrowing escaping from burning house in Buffalo crash.

February 13, 2009, 8:38 AM

Feb. 13, 2009 — -- In the minutes before a turboprop plane plunged to the earth killing all 49 people aboard and one person on the ground, the pilot and crew were recorded discussing "significant ice buildup" on the plane's windshield and the leading edge of the wings, federal investigators said today.

The black boxes recovered from the burning remains of Continental Express Flight 3407 also indicated that the de-icing button in the cockpit had been in the "on" position.

Shortly after that conversation, Capt. Marvin Renslow deployed the plane's landing gear and wing flaps to slow down the plane in preparation for landing.

"Severe pitch and roll [began] within seconds" of the flaps being deployed," said Steven Chealander, spokesman for the National Transportation Safety Board. Chealander said that means the plane's nose bucked up and down while the wings dipped and rose violently.

The plane plummeted to the earth so rapidly that Renslow and his crew never had time to radio a mayday alert.

Witnesses say the Dash 8 Q400 Bombardier aircraft came down in such a steep fall that it demolished the house, but spared other homes in the crowded neighborhood.

Miraculously two women, Karen Wielinski, 57, and her daughter Jill, 22, escaped the home in the town of Clarence Center, N.Y., with minor injuries. The Buffalo News reports that Douglas Wielinski, 61, is also registered as living at that house, but there was no official identity of the victim.

Karen Wielinski told WBEN radio that she was in a first floor family room at the rear of the house and her daughter was in an upstairs room at the front of the house.

Karen Wielinski said she was immediately buried under debris and thought she was going to die until she noticed "a little light on the right of me... I shoved off whatever was on me and crawled out the hole."

"I didn't think I was going to get out of there... that little bit of light gave me hope," she said.

When she emerged from the debris "the back of the house was gone, the fire had started, I could see the wing of the plane and I could see Jill off to the side crying, hysterical," she said.

Wielinski, who suffered a fractured collar bone, said Jill Wielinski had been trapped by fire, but managed to get out somehow in her stocking feet without any injuries. She was later treated for scratches she suffered while running away from the wreckage.

"I grabbed her and ran to the back of the yard" and went to neighbors for help, she said.

Her husband, Doug, was in another room in the middle of the house, Wielinski said. "The plane came down in the middle of the house. Unfortunately, that's where Doug was," she said and began to cry.

The crash occurred in light snow about 10:20 p.m. Thursday as the turboprop was about five miles away from Buffalo Niagara International Airport. The 74-seat plane was flying from Newark Liberty International Airport in New Jersey.

It was the first fatal crash of a commercial airliner in the United States in 2½ years.

President Obama voiced condolences, saying "our hearts go out to the families and friends who lost loved ones."

The crash site erupted into a massive fire, fed by 5,000 pounds of fuel the plane was carrying as well as a natural gas leak within the demolished building.

Brendan Biddlecom, who lives a few blocks from the crash site, told "Good Morning America" today that he had just finished putting his children to bed.

"I heard what sounded like a low buzzing sound, like a chain saw. I knew it was a plane, and I thought, gosh that almost sounds like a plane going down," Biddlecom told "GMA."

"Immediately there was an explosion and the house kind of shook," he said. "It was a terrifying sound." After checking on his children, Biddlecom went outside.

"A few moments later there was an additional explosion and the sky just lit up," he said.

Bob Dworak was watching television when he heard the plane pass overhead, which wasn't unusual because his house is on the airport's flight path.

Transcript of Air Traffic Controller

"This one sounded a little funny, made some sputtering noises and then we heard a loud noise and the house kinda shook," Dworak said.

He hurried to the crash site and was greeted by an enormous fire.

"When we went there, we couldn't see the tail [of the plane] at all. The flames were just so big. All we saw when we got there was a giant column of fire going up where the house was," Dworak said.

Clarence emergency control director Dave Bissonette indicated the plane came straight down.

"It basically dove right into the top of the house from my perspective," Bissonette said. "I'm no expert on re-creation, but it landed on the house, clearly a direct hit."

The plane's pilot had been flying for Continental since Sept. 5, 2005 and had logged 3,379 hours flying for the airline. A neighbor in Lutz, Fla., said Renslow also moonlighted at a local Publix grocery store. An official at Publix confirmed that Renslow worked for them for several years until Aug. 11, 2008.

According to entries on Renslow's Plaxo.com page, he began training on a larger plane last October. His entry on Dec. 8, 2008 exulted, "finished with training and now based in beautiful Newark!"

The tapes of the control tower show how suddenly Renslow and First Officer Rebecca Shaw must have lost control of the plane. At one point, the air traffic controller is talking to the plane and then suddenly there is no answer.

"Call me 3407 Buffalo," the controller says, referring to the missing plane. "Call me 3407 approach."

When there is nothing but silence, the controller asks the pilot of a nearby plane to see whether the missing plane is visible.

"Delta 1998, look out your right side about five miles for a Dash 8. It should be 2,300. Do you see anything there?" the controller asks.

"Ah negative Delta 1998," the pilot replies.

"Call me 3407 Buffalo. Call me 3407 Buffalo," the controller resumes before he broadens his plea for help.

"OK for all aircraft this frequency. We did have a Dash 8 over the marker that didn't make the airport. He appears to be five miles away from the airport."

Other pilots are asked by the control tower whether they are experiencing any icing on their wings.

"It doesn't appear to be building. We've got about a half inch. … About a quarter inch on us from the descent that has remained with us the whole time," says the Delta 1998 pilot.

A plane identified as Cactus 1452 says, "We've been picking up ice here for about the past 10 minutes."

The Turboprop Usually Handles Icing Well

But air safety expert John Nance told "GMA" that he would be surprised if icing caused the crash.

Icing, Nance said, is "usually something that this type of aircraft can handle very well... And it's a brand new aircraft."

Whatever did happen, he said, "was very precipitous. They were fighting a battle that was only seconds long."

"GMA" weather anchor Sam Champion said high winds that had blown through the area earlier in the night had calmed down by the time of the crash.

Stories began to emerge of the crash victims.

Beverly Eckert, whose husband died in the 9/11 attack on the World Trade Center, was aboard the plane. Eckert became a familiar spokeswoman for many of the 9/11 families. She was heading to Buffalo for a celebration of what would have been her husband's 58th birthday.

Obama, who met with Eckert last week, praised her as a "tireless advocate for the families" of 9/11.

"In keeping with that passionate commitment, she was on her way to Buffalo to mark what would have been her husband's birthday and launch a scholarship in his memory. She was an inspiration to me," the president said.

Chris Kausner said his sister Ellyce was also on the plane. The second-year student at Florida Coastal School of Law was coming home to be her nephew's guest at hid kindergarten Valentine's Day party.

Chris Kausner said his sister doted on her five nieces and nephews.

"She was a great aunt. Man, she loved those kids. They are going to miss her," he said.

The last plane to go down was a US Airways jet that crash landed in the Hudson River last month. Everyone was rescued from that flight. The jetliner went down after power to both engines was knocked out by a collision with geese.

Thursday's crash was the first fatal crash of a commercial airliner in the United States since Aug. 27, 2006, when 49 people died in Lexington, Ky., when a Comair jet crashed on takeoff after pilots mistakenly used the wrong runway.

ABC News' Alice Gomstyn, Scott Mayerowitz and Jonann Brady contributed to this report.

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