Page last updated at 19:42 GMT, Friday, 13 February 2009

Investigators enter NY crash site


Aerial footage shows the wreckage of the plane crash

Investigators are moving onto the site of a passenger plane crash in New York state, after raging fires there were put out, say officials.

They will begin trying to identify the remains of some of the 50 people thought to have died, said state health commissioner Anthony Billittier.

Continental flight 3407 was five minutes from Buffalo airport when it crashed at 2210 local time (0310 GMT).

The cause of the plane's sudden crash remains a mystery, say investigators.

They were prevented from launching a full-scale investigation at the site because of the blaze there, but the two flight recorders have been retrieved and have been sent to Washington for analysis.

The dead are thought to include 44 passengers, four crew and one off-duty crew member on board, and one person on the ground.

But two people - believed to be a woman and child - who were also in the house are thought to have escaped with minor injuries.

Direct hit

Officials from a number of state and federal agencies appeared at a news conference to confirm that the investigation was finally able to proceed, following hours of delay caused by the intense heat at the site.

Map of Buffalo

They say initial findings do not appear to point to any deliberate attack on the plane, but the reason the plane ran into trouble so suddenly remains unknown.

The twin-prop Bombardier Dash 8 Q400 aircraft, operated by Colgan Air for Continental Airlines, was flying from Newark airport in New Jersey to Buffalo Niagara International Airport.

It was snowing at the time, and other pilots had reported ice forming on the wings of their planes.

The pilots did not tell air traffic controllers of any problems during the flight, and a recording of communications appears normal until shortly before the crash.

However, a minute after one response, the controller was unable to contact flight 3407 and asked other planes in the area if they could spot it.

One airport official said he had been told "the plane simply dropped off the radar screen".

Campaigner killed

Witnesses spoke of it diving steeply into a fiery explosion. The tail of the plane could be seen sticking out of the ground at the crash site.

Beverly Eckert

Among those on board was Beverly Eckert, the widow of a victim of the 9/11 attacks who became a campaigner on security issues.

Alison Des Forges - a writer and expert on Rwanda - was also among those killed, said New York Governor David Patterson.

Mr Patterson said it was "hard to make sense" of the tragedy, but paid tribute to the "tremendous human effort and caring" shown by those who had responded to the emergency.

And he said it was "miraculous" that some of the occupants of the house hit had escaped. Another two people had missed the flight.

It sounded quite loud, and then the sound stopped. Then one or two seconds later, there was a thunderous explosion
Eyewitness David Luce

President Barack Obama said he and his wife Michelle were "deeply saddened" by the news.

"Our hearts go out to the families and friends of loved ones," he said, thanking the "brave first responders" who tried to save lives and make the area safe.

The National Transportation Safety Board will hold a full news conference on the accident at 1530 local time (2030 GMT).

'Sound stopped'

Eyewitnesses spoke of hearing unusual sounds coming from the plane before it crashed.

Amateur footage of the crash's immediate aftermath

"It sounded quite loud, and then the sound stopped," David Luce, who lives 150 yards (150m) from the crash site, told the Buffalo News.

"Then one or two seconds later, there was a thunderous explosion. I thought something hit our house. It shook our whole house."

He described going to the scene of the crash and seeing flames up to 50ft (15m) high.

"The house was already flattened. There was no house, just a pile of rubbish and still burning," he said.

Dave Bissonette, emergency control director in Clarence, said it was "remarkable" that only one house was hit, with neighbouring houses relatively unscathed.

A twin-prop Bombardier Dash 8 Q400 aircraft, identical to the one that crashed
The Canadian-made Bombardier Dash 8 Q400 was delivered new last year
Q400 is newest member of the Dash 8 family
Twin-engine turboprop, mainly for short-haul flights
First flown in 1998, entered commercial service in 2000

"As devastating as that was, it could have easily wiped out that entire neighbourhood," he said.

Relatives of the victims have been offered counselling and support as they wait for news.

Chris Kausner, whose sister is believed to have been on the plane, was forced to break the news to his mother, holidaying in Florida.

"I heard my mother make a noise on the phone that I never heard her make before," he told reporters.

Meanwhile President Obama paid tribute to 9/11 widow Ms Eckert, calling her "an inspiration to me and so many others".

Continental Airlines expressed profound sadness over the crash and said it was working closely with Colgan Air to "provide as much support as possible for all concerned".

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