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Buffalo plane crash was 'instantaneous,' investigator says

'It was a sudden catastrophic event that took place and then 30 seconds later it impacted,' an NTSB investigator says. Recovery efforts are slowed as water that doused the wreckage turns to ice.

February 15, 2009|P.J. Huffstutter and Erika Hayasaki

AND ERIKA HAYASAKI, CLARENCE CENTER, N.Y., AND NEW YORK CITY — A cold breeze carried the acrid scent of smoke across this suburban Buffalo neighborhood Saturday as workers began the process of recovering bodies from the wreckage of Continental Flight 3407, a commuter plane that crashed into a home three nights ago.

Officials said it would take at least another three to four days until all of the victims' remains could be removed from the charred plane, which sits on top of the crushed white frame house with green trim on Long Street. Forty-nine people aboard the plane and one in the house were killed.

Trouble on the flight began when the plane's flaps went down at 2,300 feet, said Steven Chealander, a member of the National Transportation and Safety Board, at a news conference Saturday. The plane pitched forward and rolled in the air, but did not turn over. The turbulence unfolded so quickly that passengers on board would likely have had little time to realize the aircraft was crashing, he said; pilots didn't have time to send a mayday call.

Although witnesses reported seeing the plane nose-dive, Chealander said that investigators had found the plane's cockpit, tail, engine and wings positioned "as they should be if laying flat, not if it was nose-down."

"All we know is that the airplane hit flat," he said. "It was a sudden catastrophic event that took place, and then 30 seconds later it impacted."

Ice and cold weather hampered recovery and investigation efforts Saturday as nearly 150 emergency workers and volunteers combed the crash scene, while residents handed out pizza and drinks.

The charred blue and white tail section of the plane stuck out of the crash site like a flag. The fire that erupted after the impact left scorch marks on the ground, which was littered with debris. Firefighters had doused the crash scene with water, which froze when temperatures dropped overnight. Sheets of ice also covered the sides of homes a few hundred yards from the crash, from efforts to prevent other structures from catching fire.

The tips of some hickory and pine trees were singed, but the rest of this once peaceful neighborhood seemed untouched by the damage.

Authorities said three people had been arrested at the scene, including one who was videotaping the wreckage from within what they called "the inner ring."

At least 15 bodies have been recovered so far. The local medical examiner's office has received federal help in identifying the bodies; family members have been asked for DNA samples and their loved ones' dental records.

Erie County Health Commissioner Anthony J. Billittier described what workers found inside the home that Karen Wielinski, 57, and her 22-year-old daughter, Jill, were able to escape. Wielinski's 61-year-old husband, Doug, was also in the house and is presumed to have died.

"We've met with a lot of frozen debris," Billittier said. "It's made our progress very slow."

Tim Smith, 47, owner of the nearby Pizza Inn, had been working since Thursday night to feed recovery workers. His restaurant was open when the plane crashed about 10:20 p.m. in Clarence Center, a close-knit community of about 1,800, where teenagers hang out at the Pizza Inn on weekdays and residents gather every Friday night at Mardee's diner for a fish fry.

On Friday, hundreds of people of various faiths attended a Jewish prayer service to pay tribute to the dead.

"If the wind had been just a bit different," Smith said, "it would have hit my building."

He had dark circles under his eyes. When he heard the faint drone of a plane passing overhead, Smith looked up nervously. Aircraft regularly pass over this neighborhood, about six miles from Buffalo Niagara International Airport. Residents never gave it much thought, until now.

"It was just part of living here," Smith said, "what with us being so close to the airport."

Joe Kanzoneri, 66, a retired insurance salesman who lives down the road, watched the recovery efforts Saturday.

"That [plane] could have taken out the entire block," he said. "It could have taken out half the town. We could all be dead."

Kanzoneri was falling asleep Thursday night when he heard a loud growling engine and sudden silence. It bothered him so much that he climbed out of bed and headed outside. A neighbor called and told him to look out from his garage. "All I saw was a wall of flames," he said.

The theory that ice brought down the plane didn't seem to make sense to Kanzoneri, nor to many other residents. In Clarence Center, snowstorms in the winter are as normal as summer thunderstorms in Florida.

Matt Cardella, 20, said he was at home watching TV when he heard the boom and his house shook. He ran outside into the falling snow and saw people screaming for help and grabbing garden hoses to try to fight the flames.

"I think I'm still in shock," Cardella said.

"I've lived here all my life, and I never would have thought that something like this could happen."

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p.j.huffstutter@latimes.com

erika.hayasaki@latimes.com

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