NEW YORK (AP) – A New York Yankees baseball player was killed when a small plane he was flying in slammed into a 40-story apartment building, killing one other person, in a crash that rained flaming debris onto the sidewalks and briefly raised fears of a new terrorist attack.
Yankees pitcher Cory Lidle never made his love of flying a secret. He was an avid pilot who viewed flying as an escape from the stress of professional baseball and a way to see the world in a different light.
“No matter what’s going on in your life, when you get up in that plane, everything’s gone,” Lidle told an interviewer with Comcast Sportsnet while flying his plane in April.
Lidle boarded the same single-engine plane Wednesday afternoon with an instructor for what was supposed to be a leisurely flight around New York City. They took off from a suburban New Jersey airport, circled around the Statue of Liberty, flew past lower Manhattan and north above the East River.
But something went wrong moments after passing above the 59th Street Bridge. The plane smashed into a luxury high-rise condominium building on the Upper East Side, killing Lidle and the other passenger and showering fiery debris on the sidewalk and street below, officials said. The crash briefly raised fears of another terrorist attack.
“It was very scary,” said Diane Tarantini, who was sitting in an outdoor courtyard across the street when she heard a loud boom and saw a big fireball that reminded her of Sept. 11. “It brings back all these memories about planes hitting buildings, the terror of that day in September.”
Lidle’s passport was found on the street, according to a federal official, speaking to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity. It was not immediately clear who was at the controls and who was the second person aboard.
There was no official confirmation of Lidle’s death from city officials, who still need to identify the bodies.
A federal official, speaking on condition of anonymity, had said that authorities had a report that the plane sent a distress call to the Federal Aviation Administration before the crash. But National Transportation Safety Board member Debbie Hersman said at a late-night news conference, “we’ve asked the FAA and they have reviewed some aircraft-control tapes. At this point they have no indication that there was a mayday call.”
The flight lasted about 20 minutes, with a 911 call about a fire coming in around 2:45 p.m. (1845 GMT). Hersman said debris was scattered everywhere at the crash scene, including aircraft parts and headsets on the ground. The propeller separated from engine. Investigators also obtained the pilot’s log book.
The Cirrus SR20 was manufactured in 2002 and purchased earlier this year, Hersman said. The small aircraft has four seats and is equipped with a parachute designed to let it float to earth in case of a mishap. The parachute apparently did not engage after the crash.
FAA records showed the plane was registered to Lidle, who had repeatedly assured reporters in recent weeks that flying was safe and that the Yankees, who were traumatized in 1979 when catcher Thurman Munson was killed in the crash of a plane he was piloting, had no reason to worry. His teammates were stunned.
Jason Giambi was among the first to express sadness and condolences. “Right now, I am really in a state of shock,” Giambi said in a statement. “I have known Cory and his wife Melanie for over 18 years and watched his son grow up. We played high school ball together and have remained close throughout our careers. We were excited to be reunited in New York this year and I am just devastated to hear this news.”
On Sunday, the day after the Yankees were eliminated from the playoffs, Lidle cleaned out his locker at Yankee Stadium and said he planned to fly back to California, making a few stops. Lidle had reserved a room for Wednesday night at the historic Union Station hotel in downtown Nashville, Tennessee, hotel spokeswoman Melanie Fly said.
Family and friends converged on Lidle’s home in the Los Angeles suburb of Glendora, California, where he and his family moved about six years ago. “This is a tragedy for everybody involved,” said his mother-in-law Mary Varela, her eyes welling with tears.
Lidle pitched with the Phillies before coming to the Yankees. He began his career in 1997 with the Mets, and also pitched for Tampa Bay, Oakland, Toronto and Cincinnati.
Lidle’s US$6.3 million (¤5 million), two-year contract, signed with the Phillies in November 2004, contained a provision saying the team could get out of paying the remainder if he were injured or killed while flying a plane. Because the regular season is over, Lidle already had received the full amount.
The plane came through a hazy, cloudy sky and slammed into apartments that were 30 and 31 flights above the street, but the floors are numbered at 40 and 41, and go up to 50, even though the building is technically about 40 stories high.
“People number the buildings so they can feel like they live at a higher floor,” said Fire Commissioner Nick Scoppetta, who compared it to eliminating the 13th floor in a building.
The crash touched 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. Firefighters put the blaze out in less than an hour.
At least 21 people were taken to the hospital, most of them firefighters. Their conditions were not disclosed. 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. Rain started pouring at around 4 p.m., and people gazed up at the smoke and fire as they covered their heads with plastic bags; earlier, parts of the plane fell to the ground. “I just saw something come across the sky and crash into that building,” said Young May Cha, 23, a medical student who was walking along 72nd Street. “There was fire, debris … The explosion was very small.”