New York A small plane carrying New York Yankee Cory Lidle slammed into a 50-story apartment building Wednesday after issuing a distress call, killing the pitcher and a second person in a crash that rained flaming debris onto the sidewalks and briefly raised fears of another terrorist attack.
A law enforcement official in Washington said Lidle - an avid pilot who got his license during last year's offseason - was aboard the single-engine aircraft when it plowed into the 30th and 31st floors of the high-rise on Manhattan's Upper East Side. Mayor Michael Bloomberg said both people aboard were killed.
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.
Lidle assured reporters
Federal Aviation Administration 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.
"The flying?" the 34-year-old Lidle, who had a home near Los Angeles, told The Philadelphia Inquirer this summer. "I'm not worried about it. I'm safe up there. I feel very comfortable with my abilities flying an airplane."
"No matter what's going on in your life, when you get up in that plane, everything's gone," Lidle told a Comcast SportsNet interviewer while flying his plane in April.
The crash came just four days after the Yankees' embarrassingly quick elimination from the playoffs, during which Lidle had been relegated to the bullpen. In recent days, Lidle had taken abuse from fans on sports talk radio for saying the team was unprepared.
"This is a terrible and shocking tragedy that has stunned the entire Yankees organization," Yankees owner George Steinbrenner said in a statement. He offered his condolences to Lidle's wife, Melanie, and 6-year-old son.
Distress call issued
The federal official said the plane had issued a distress call before the crash. The craft took off from New Jersey's Teterboro Airport about 2:30 p.m. and was in the air for barely 15 minutes, authorities said. Bloomberg said Lidle and his flying companion were sightseeing and were taking a route that took them over the Statue of Liberty, the Brooklyn Bridge and the Empire State Building.
The FAA said it was too early to determine what might have caused the crash. The National Transportation Safety Board sent investigators.
How the plane managed to penetrate airspace over one of the most densely packed sections of New York City was not clear. The plane was unusual in that it was equipped with a parachute in case of engine failure, but there was no sign the chute was used.
New Yorkers startled
The crash rattled New Yorkers' nerves five years after the Sept. 11 attacks, but the FBI and the Homeland Security quickly said there was no evidence it was anything but an accident. Nevertheless, within 10 minutes of the crash, fighter jets were sent aloft over several cities, including New York, Washington, Detroit, Los Angeles and Seattle, Pentagon officials said.
The plane, flying north over the East River, along the usual flight corridor, came through a hazy, cloudy sky and hit The Belaire - a red-brick tower overlooking the river - with a loud bang. It 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.
'Too close to home'
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.
"It wasn't until I was halfway home that I started shaking. The whole memory of an airplane flying into a building and across the street from your home. It's a little too close to home," Sara Green, 40, who lives across the street from The Belaire. "It crossed my mind that it was something bigger or the start of something bigger."
Outside Lidle's home in Glendora, Calif., neighbors and others quickly converged. Keri Pasqua, a close friend of the player's wife, and Mary Varela, Lidle's mother-in-law, told reporters that Melanie Lidle wasn't home and they weren't certain if she knew about the crash.
"This is a tragedy for everybody involved," a teary-eyed Varela said.
Twin brother speaks
Kevin Lidle, Cory Lidle's twin brother, said on CNN's "Larry King Live" that he had spoken to their parents, who were "obviously having a tough time."
"But what can you do? Somehow you hang in there and you get through it," he said. "I've had a lot of calls from friends and family, people calling and crying. And they've released some emotions, and I haven't done that yet. I don't know - I guess I'm in some kind of state of shock."
On Sunday, the day after the Yankees were eliminated from the playoffs, Lidle cleaned out his locker at Yankee Stadium and talked about his interest in flying.
He said he intended to fly back to California in several days and planned to make a few stops. Cory Lidle had reserved a room for Wednesday night at the historic Union Station hotel in downtown Nashville, Tenn., hotel spokeswoman Melanie Fly said.
Lidle studied crash reports
Lidle discussed with reporters the plane crash that killed John F. Kennedy Jr. and how he had read the accident report on the NTSB Web site.
Lidle, acquired from the Philadelphia Phillies on July 30, told The New York Times last month that his four-seat Cirrus SR20 was safe.
"The whole plane has a parachute on it," Lidle said. "Ninety-nine percent of pilots that go up never have engine failure, and the 1 percent that do usually land it. But if you're up in the air and something goes wrong, you pull that parachute, and the whole plane goes down slowly."
Lidle pitched 1 1/3 innings in the fourth and final game of the Division Series against the Detroit Tigers and gave up three earned runs, but was not the losing pitcher. He had a 12-10 regular-season record with a 4.85 ERA.
He 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 $6.3 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.
Other baseball star crashes
After the Yankees' defeat at the hands of the Tigers, Lidle called in to WFAN sports-talk radio two days before the crash to defend manager Joe Torre, and said: "I want to win as much as anybody. But what am I supposed to do? Go cry in my apartment for the next two weeks."
Lidle was an outcast among some teammates throughout his career because he became a replacement player in 1995, when major leaguers were on strike.
Among the baseball stars killed in plane crashes were Roberto Clemente, Pittsburgh Pirates outfielder, killed Dec. 31, 1972, at age 38 while en route to Nicaragua to aid earthquake victims; and Munson, the Yankee catcher killed Aug. 2, 1979, at age 32 in Canton, Ohio.
"It's just sadder than sad," said New York Mets pitching coach Rick Peterson, who was Lidle's pitching coach in Oakland. "It's horrific. It's almost unbelievable. It's a surreal moment."
Young May Cha, a 23-year-old Cornell University medical student, said she was walking back from the grocery store down East 72nd Street when she saw something come across the sky and crash into the building. Cha said there appeared to be smoke coming from behind the aircraft, and "it looked like it was flying erratically for the short time that I saw it."
Former NTSB director Jim Hall said in a telephone interview he does not understand how a plane could get so close to a New York City building after Sept. 11.
"We're under a high alert and you would assume that if something like this happened, people would have known about it before it occurred, not after," Hall said.
Mystery writer Carol Higgins Clark, daughter of author Mary Higgins Clark, lives on the 38th floor but was not home at the time. She described the building's residents as a mix of actors, doctors, lawyers and writers, and people with second homes.
Despite initial fears of a terrorist attack, all three New York City-area airports continued to operate normally, FAA spokesman Jim Peters said. The White House said neither President Bush nor Vice President Dick Cheney was moved to secure locations.
The Belaire was built in the late 1980s and is situated near Sotheby's auction house. It has 183 apartments, many of which sell for more than $1 million.
Several lower floors are occupied by doctors and administrative offices, as well as guest facilities for family members of patients at the Hospital for Special Surgery, hospital spokeswoman Phyllis Fisher said. No patients were in the high-rise, Fisher said.