National Transportation Safety Board spokesman Steve Chealander said Friday that 14 investigators have been assigned to the crash of Continental Connection Flight 3407, which killed 49 people on the plane and a person in the house it crashed into Thursday night.
Chealander says the smoldering scene is still too hot to collect debris. But investigators are going after the fight data and cockpit voice recorders in the plane’s largely intact tail, the Associated Press reported.
The commuter airplane was flying from Newark, N.J., in snowy, windy weather when it crashed into a home in Clarence, N.Y. — seven miles short of the Buffalo airport.
Forty-four passengers, four crew members and one off-duty pilot died aboard the airplane. One person inside the house died while two other occupants escaped with minor injuries.
The deceased resident of the home, which remained engulfed in flames hours after the crash, is Doug Wielinski, 61, who was survived by his wife Karen, 57, and her 22-year-old daughter, National Public Radio said.
Airline officials identified the crew as Capt. Marvin Renslow, pilot; first officer Rebecca Shaw and flight attendants Matilda Quintero and Donna Prisco. The off-duty crew member was Capt. Joseph Zuffoletto, the AP reported.
Among those aboard the turboprop plane was Beverly Eckert, a widow of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. She co-chaired the 9/11 Family Steering Committee, a group of activists who worked on exposing government failures that led up to the attacks, and fixing them. Eckert was flying to her hometown Thursday to celebrate her late husband’s 58th birthday.
Another relative of a passenger, Chris Kausner, said he believed his sister was on the plane, and had to give the news to his mother who was vacationing in Florida. “To tell you the truth, I heard my mother make a noise on the phone that I’ve never heard before,” he told reporters.
About 30 relatives and others who arrived at the airport overnight were escorted into a private area and then taken by bus to a senior citizens center in the neighboring town of Cheektowaga, where counselors and representatives from Continental waited to help, according to the AP.
“Continental extends its deepest sympathy to the family members and loved ones of those involved in this accident,” Continental Chairman and CEO Larry Kellner said in a statement. “Our thoughts and prayers are with all of the family members and loved ones of those involved in the flight 3407 tragedy.”
The pilot made no mention of mechanical trouble in communications with the control tower during Thursday night’s flight. When the aircraft disappeared from their radar screens, air traffic controllers tried to contact the pilot but got no reply. They then called on other nearby planes to try to make visual contact, according to tapes released Friday.
“This is ground communication. We need to talk to someone at least five miles northeast … either state police or sheriff’s department. We need to find out if anything is on the ground,” the controller said, reported Reuters.
Witnesses heard the twin turboprop aircraft sputtering before it went down about 10:20 p.m., squarely through the roof of a house, its tail section visible through flames shooting at least 50 feet high, the AP reported.
Erie County Emergency Coordinator David Bissonette said it appeared the plane “dove directly on top of the house.”
“It was a direct hit,” Bissonette said, according to the AP. “It’s remarkable that it only took one house. As devastating as that is, it could have wiped out the entire neighborhood.”
It was the first fatal commercial airliner to crash in the United States in two-and-a-half years. The last fatal crash was a Comair commuter jet that went down in Lexington, Ky., after it took off from a runway that was too short, killing 49 people in August 2006.
Thursday’s 74-seat Q400 Bombardier aircraft was operated by Manassas, Va.-based Colgan Air.
“At this time, the full resources of Colgan Air’s accident response team are being mobilized and will be devoted to cooperating with all authorities responding to the accident and to contacting family members and providing assistance to them,” a statement from the company said.
President Barack Obama also issued a statement saying he was “deeply saddened” by the news. “Our hearts go out to the families and friends who lost loved ones,” the president said, according to Bloomberg News.
Continental’s press release said relatives and friends of those on flight 3407 who wanted to give or receive information about those on board could call a family assistance number, 1-800-621-3263.