NEW YORK — A small airplane carrying New York Yankees pitcher Cory Lidle and his flight instructor slammed into a luxury high-rise on Manhattan's Upper East Side on Wednesday afternoon, exploding in a fireball that killed both men and engulfed two floors of the building.
Authorities termed the 2:42 p.m. crash an accident, but it evoked emotional reactions from New Yorkers who vividly recall the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center a little more than five years ago.
President Bush was alerted to the crash, and Air Force jets were scrambled over several cities as a precaution.
Residents of the 42-story, red-brick building were quickly evacuated, streaming down the stairwells into a crowd of fire and emergency crews trained for fast response after Sept. 11.
The impact at the 30th and 31st floors rained flaming debris down the north side of the Belaire building, at 72nd Street and York Avenue, overlooking the East River. The building is just down the block from Sotheby's, the famous auction house.
The bodies of both victims were found on the street, Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg said at a news conference. CNN, citing an FBI official, reported that Lidle's passport also was found on the street.
Eleven firefighters were treated for minor injuries. Two people escaped unharmed despite being inside a residential unit that was penetrated by parts of the aircraft. The two were "a little bit shaken," Bloomberg told reporters. "They were sitting there and they heard a noise, glass breaking, and they ran out the door and into the hall." He said the plane's engine was later found in one of the residences.
Lidle, 34, of West Covina, had earned his pilot's license less than a year ago. It was not clear whether he or the instructor, whose identity was not released, was at the controls. Lidle owned the plane, which was identified as a Cirrus SR20, a single-engine four-seat aircraft made of lightweight composite materials.
The plane is noteworthy for what its manufacturer, Cirrus Design Corp. of Duluth, Minn., calls "a final level of defense" -- a parachute for the entire plane. It is not known whether any attempt was made to deploy the parachute before the crash.
Newsday reported that the SR20 had been involved in 20 accidents, accounting for at least 15 deaths, in the last seven years.
Bloomberg did not identify either of the passengers during his news conference, but he said the student pilot -- presumably Lidle -- had about 75 hours of flying time.
The two had taken off at 2:29 p.m. from Teterboro Airport, about 12 miles away in New Jersey, and had circled the Statue of Liberty before turning north up the East River, Bloomberg said. The weather was threatening but did not give way to rain until after the crash.
Federal Aviation Administration officials said the pilot didn't need to radio air traffic controllers in New York because Visual Flight Rules, under which he was flying, don't require such contact. Bloomberg said private aircraft were allowed to fly over the rivers but had to seek permission before crossing into Manhattan airspace.
A witness, identified as Zenel Perezic, told CNN that the airplane seemed to be in distress moments before the crash.
Joanne Hartlaub was on a stationary bike in the gym in the building opposite the Belaire when she saw something falling; it looked like metal, she said.
"I didn't see wings. I just saw a big engine." At that moment, she said, "I was insane with fear that we were being attacked."
She saw the plane "smash into the side of the building and blow out all the windows. Then all sorts of debris was falling down on the street." She looked down and saw that the fuel had splashed on the street and ignited. "There was fire all over the ground within seconds."
Three hours later, Hartlaub said, she was still shaking. "I've been shaking all day."
She was near the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001, she said, and saw the first plane fly into one of the towers.
Former Bloomingdale's Chairman Marvin Traub and his wife, Lee, have lived on the top floor of the Belaire since the building went up in the early 1990s. He said he was at the office of his Manhattan consulting business when friends alerted him to the crash about 3 p.m.
"Mrs. Traub was in the building.... After she walked down, she knew I'd be concerned, so she called me," he said.
Elias Taveras, 13, was in his science class three blocks away when smoke started blowing in the windows. It felt as close, he said, "as if the fire was actually in our school."
His classmates had a variety of responses, he said. "Some people got nervous, some people got excited."
Although most of the students dispersed, Elias wandered to the scene to take a look. "I was like, oh my God, it's like what happened at the world trade tower."
Scott M. Stringer, the Manhattan borough president, was at the scene. He said the initial reports had been chilling. "Every time you hear about an aircraft crashing into a building, [terrorism] is something you think about," he said.