NEW YORK — A USAir commuter jet attempting to take off from La Guardia Airport in a heavy snowstorm cartwheeled down the runway, burst into flames and tumbled into Flushing Bay on Sunday night. Police said at least 20 people were killed and dozens more were injured, many of them seriously.
Officials said the pilot of Flight 405, bound for Cleveland with 47 passengers and a crew of four, apparently sensed there was some kind of trouble as the plane accelerated down the runway, and he tried to abort the takeoff.
Witnesses said the Fokker 28 4000 twin-engine jet lifted off Runway 13 briefly, then settled back to earth, catching fire as it tumbled off the end of the runway. The front of the fuselage settled on its side in the shallow water of the bay.
Harbor patrol personnel with inflatable rafts and rescue teams with diving gear began pulling survivors from the water a few minutes after the crash, which occurred at 9:37 p.m. EST.
Hours after the crash, a New York police diver said he saw the pilot dead, strapped in his seat in the fuselage. "The fuselage was upside down," the diver said.
The tide made it difficult to get into the plane and remove bodies.
Several passengers and other crew members were believed trapped in the wreckage, some of which came to rest above the surface of the water. Firefighters cut through the tangled debris with power saws to reach some of those pinned in the aircraft.
It was bitterly cold at the airport as the rescue workers in relays tried to get into the submerged plane. At least one firefighter was overcome by jet fuel fumes.
Paramedics said many of those pulled from the plane had suffered serious burns. The dead were placed in body bags, stacked along the runway. Those still alive lay beside them on stretchers and gurneys. A Roman Catholic priest from a nearby church walked amid the dead and dying, giving last rites.
Bill Kress, a spokesman for USAir in Arlington, Va., said the victims included "a mix of vacation travelers and business passengers." Because of the continuing snowstorm, emergency helicopters had trouble reaching the scene, and fire and emergency vehicles were snarled in a massive traffic jam that developed quickly around the airport.
Officials said 21 of the less seriously injured survivors walked about a mile from the crash site to the Delta Airlines terminal, where some of them were given emergency treatment.
"A number of walking wounded," said an emergency service worker, speaking in the flare of floodlights.
Six of the injured, two with severe burns, were taken to Bellevue Hospital in Manhattan, according to police Lt. Robert Nardoza. Other victims were taken to Booth Memorial Hospital in Queens and Elmhurst Hospital in Elmhurst.
What might have caused the pilot to abort the takeoff was not immediately known. Early reports did not indicate whether the heavy snow was a factor in the crash.
Officials said visibility was about three-fourths of a mile--well above the minimum for takeoff--when the accident occurred.
Patrick Silver, who lives near the airport, told television reporters he saw the plane rise a few feet, then drop back onto the runway and flip over several times before tumbling in flames into the water.
"I heard a loud bang," he said. "I saw the flames and the whole aircraft twisting and turning. It catapulted three or four times before it went into the water. . . . It was a huge fireball."
Philip Argento told reporters he saw rescue crews pulling survivors, some of them unconscious, from the wreckage.
"They were scared," he said. "They were soaked with gasoline. They were all wet and cold."
Officials said Flight 405 had originated in Jacksonville, Fla. They said the flight had been delayed about two hours--apparently by weather--before it attempted to take off on the final leg of the journey to Cleveland.
La Guardia was shut down immediately after the crash, and inbound flights were diverted to other airports in the New York area. Officials said they did not know how long La Guardia would remain closed.
Several inches of snow and slush covered the runway area. The plane hurtled over a large dirt bank at the end of the runway, then plunged into the water. On the way, it hit a small building at the end of the runway, igniting it. Wreckage was strewn along the end of the runway.
New York Mayor David Dinkins was among the many local officials who converged on the accident scene Sunday night.
"There are no words that can soothe people's grief at a time like this," the mayor said.
The accident occurred 2 1/2 years after another USAir jet--a Boeing 737--skidded off a runway at La Guardia and crashed into the East River when the pilot tried to abort the takeoff. Two passengers died in that crash, which was blamed on errors by the cockpit crew.
The Fokker 28 has been involved in at least two other crashes while attempting to take off.
On March 10, 1989, an Air Ontario F-28 lifting off from an airport in Dryden, Ontario, crashed into trees and exploded in flames during a snowstorm. Twenty-three were killed.
On Oct. 25, 1988, Twelve people died when an Aeroperu F-28 crashed while climbing out from the airport in the Andean city of Juliaca, Peru.
Malnic reported from Los Angeles and Goldman from New York.