New York (AP) — A small plane carrying New York Yankee Cory Lidle slammed into a 50-story skyscraper Wednesday, apparently 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, D.C., said Lidle — an avid pilot who got his flying license during last year's offseason — was aboard the single-engine aircraft when it crashed 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.
It was not immediately clear who was at the controls and who was the second person aboard. Law enforcement officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Lidle's passport was found on the street.
Federal Aviation Administration records showed the plane was registered to Lidle, who had repeatedly assured reporters in recent months 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 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."
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.
The law enforcement official said the plane had issued a distress call before the crash. The FAA said it was too early to determine what might have caused the crash. The National Transportation Safety Board sent investigators.
"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 and son.
The crash rattled New Yorkers' nerves five years after the Sept. 11 attacks, abut 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, Los Angeles and Seattle, Pentagon officials said.
The plane came through a hazy, cloudy sky and hit The Belaire — a red-brick tower overlooking the East River, about five miles from the World Trade Center — 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.
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," said 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."
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. Lidle discussed 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 began his career in 1997 with the Mets, and pitched with the Phillies before coming to the Yankees. He also pitched for Tampa Bay, Oakland, Toronto and Cincinnati.
The guarantee language of 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 piloting a plane. Because the regular season is over, Lidle already had received the full amount in the deal.
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, saying, "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?"
The plane left New Jersey's Teterboro Airport, across the Hudson River from the city, at 2:30 p.m., about 15 minutes before the crash, according to officials at the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which operates the airport. But they said they did not where the aircraft was headed.
Former NTSB director Jim Hall said in a telephone interview he doesn't 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.
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.