Plane crash scares New Yorkers

Although authorities ruled out terrorism, fighter jets were scrambled over US cities.

New York authorities also heightened security alert levels after the plane slammed into the building on Manhattan’s wealthy upper east side.

The plane, a Cirrus SR20, was being flown by New York Yankees pitcher Cory Lidle, 34, who was one of the two dead, according to several US media outlets.

The single-engine plane struck the upper floors of the 50-storey building about 2.45pm local time (0445 AEST) raining down flaming debris and drawing an anxious crowd of hundreds of New Yorkers.

Mayor Michael Bloomberg said the plane carrying a student pilot and instructor took off from Teterboro Airport in New Jersey, circled the State of Liberty and then headed up the East River before falling off radar screens.

He said there was no sign of terrorism and added, “Sadly an accident like this cost two people their lives. But I don’t know that there’s any greater significance”.

The governor of New York state, George Pataki, said the crash triggered a heightening in alert levels.

“The federal authorities have taken steps to put air cover over some of the cities in the country simply as a precaution,” he said.

“Obviously, we have taken steps and the security level has been significantly heightened even from the normal-level orange conditions until there is a final determination as to what exactly happened here,” he added.

Horrific memories rekindled
The television images of the burning building evoked memories of the devastating attacks of September 11, 2001 when al-Qaeda militants flew hijacked airliners into the World Trade Centre and the Pentagon, killing nearly 3,000 people.

Fire-fighters contained the latest blaze at about 3.30pm local time (0530 AEST).

Chris Foege, 38, a sales representative, was walking on a nearby street when she heard the plane crash into the building, on East 72nd Street.

“I just stood there in shock, I thought ‘this can’t be happening to us again,'” she said.

It was like “9-11 all over again.”

“It was just incredibly loud, and it smelled really bad,” she said.

Emergency service helicopters flew overhead as a crowd watched from streets that were packed with emergency vehicles. Police closed off traffic to at least a six-block area around the site.

“There was a boom sound, but we weren’t sure what it was, and then they told us to evacuate the building,” said Lilian Regolia, who works opposite the building.

Another witness, Diane Tarantini, said: “I was sitting right in front of the building. I heard a loud whistling noise, I looked up and saw a flash … stuff started falling down.”

The military scrambled fighter jets above US cities as a precaution, said Admiral Tim Keating, commander of the US Northern Command.

Admiral Keating would not say how many cities were under air cover.

“Fighters, along with early warning systems, they’ve been up there for half an hour, 45 minutes,” he told CNN.

A Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) spokeswoman said private aircraft had the right to fly up the East or Hudson rivers.

“They were flying by visual flight rules in that corridor and (the plane) was not in contact with a tower,” FAA spokeswoman Diane Sticaliere said.