In an incident that evoked memories of 9/11, a small aircraft crashed into a residential building on Manhattan's Upper East Side in New York late on Wednesday afternoon. There were two confirmed casualties.
The aircraft, that reportedly took off at 2:30 pm from Teterboro Airport in New Jersey, crashed into the 50-story Belaire Condominium on East 72nd Street and York Avenue.
Fox news claimed New York Yankees baseball pitcher Cory Lidle, who was piloting the aircraft and an instructor died in the crash.
A part of the plane struck the 20th floor of the residential towers, which is 2 km from the United Nations headquarters, at around 2.42 pm local time, setting on fire at least three apartments.
The single-engined plane was flying under visual flying rules and officials said it is unlikely to have a flight recorder.
Mayor Michael Bloomberg put it as a "tragic accident". "There is nothing to suggest that anything remotely like terrorism was involved in this," he said.
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.
The bodies of 34-year-old Lidle and his trainer were recovered from the sidewalks and no bodies were found inside the building, police said.
Two persons who were in one of the apartments managed to escape as the plane rattled the building.
The engine of the small plane, which does not carry more than 125 gallons of fuel, was found in one of the apartments.
Twenty-one people were reported treated in the hospital, mostly for smoke inhalation and included 15 firefighters, one police officer and five civilians.
More than 100 fire fighters responded to the accident and police blocked off a huge area creating traffic chaos. The crash in being investigated as an accident, police said.
The building was evacuated but after the fire was extinguished, people were allowed to move back except on the floors where apartments had caught fire as it was determined that there was no structural damage.
The plane, which had taken off from a small airport at Teterboro in neighbouring State of New Jersey, was in the air for about 11 minutes when it went off the radar and a little later police emergency received calls that a plane had crashed into the building.
There was no disruption in commercial air traffic from nearby La Guardia airport from which several domestic commercial flights originate.
Official indications are that the crash is an accident with no relevance or indications of terrorism. But they are being extra careful in characterising the ongoing investigations as nothing is ruled "in" or "out" is the refrain.
President George W Bush has been informed of the plane crash, but unlike what took place in the aftermath of the terror attacks of September 11, 2001, the security scenario around the President or the White House has not undergone major changes.
The North American Aerospace Defence Command is said to have put fighter aircraft over several American cities as a way of precaution, but the defence agency is tightlipped on which cities in America are under surveillance.
The Federal Aviation Administration said in a telephone news conference that the crash was caused by a small fixed-wing aircraft that was flying "under visual flight rules" in the East River corridor.
The FAA spokesperson, Diane Spitaliere, cautioned however that only a preliminary probe had been carried out.
Pravin Nair, a research fellow at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, one of the buildings near the crash site, said around 3 pm, a colleague came in and told him about the crash. From his lab, he could see the smoke and hear the fire alarms. "Lots of helicopters are hovering overhead," he said.
A CNN report quoted a North American Aerospace Defense Command spokesperson as saying that it had not been tracking the plane. It also added that as a precautionary measure, combat aircraft had been positioned over several key buildings in US cities.
"The street was filled with black smoke from street level to the sky, which of course reminded me of five years ago," Rich Behar, an eyewitness, told Fox News. "The building's burning on top, there was chaos on the street."
The streets below were jammed with police and emergency aid vehicles. The FBI said there was no indication of terrorism.
(With DPA and PTI Inputs)