BUFFALO, New York (Reuters) - A commuter plane suddenly nosedived and slammed into a home in snowy western New York state late on Thursday, killing all 49 people aboard and one on the ground as it burst into a giant ball of flames.
Speculation immediately focused on the icy conditions. The crew reported snow and mist and commented on ice buildup on the windshield and front edge of the wings shortly before the crash, investigators said after listening to the cockpit voice recorder.
The crash followed an extended period of safety in the U.S. airline industry and was the first deadly accident since August 2006, when a similar number of people were killed when a Comair jet crashed on takeoff in Kentucky.
Continental Connection Flight 3407, operated by Colgan Air, was traveling to Buffalo from Newark, New Jersey. Colgan is a unit of Pinnacle Airlines.
The 74-seat plane — a Dash 8 Q400 turboprop made by Canada’s Bombardier Inc — went down at about 10:20 p.m. EST (0320 GMT on Friday) about 6 miles before the runway at the Buffalo airport, authorities said.
This was the third fatal crash since 2003 for Pinnacle and its Colgan unit, according to safety records. The two previous flights, which were not carrying passengers, resulted in a total of four crew fatalities.
Bombardier said it was the first fatal crash involving a Dash 8 Q400 aircraft.
As the plane descended with its landing gear down, it suddenly and violently rotated its nose up and down and its wings see-sawed, investigators said after reviewing flight data and cockpit voice recorders recovered from the wreckage.
“Shortly after that the crew attempted to raise the gear and flaps, just before the end of the recording,” said Steve Chealander of the National Transportation Safety Board.
Only the tail section of the plane appeared intact, sticking out of a crater as firefighters worked to put out a blaze fed by jet fuel and a natural gas leak.
Two people escaped the destroyed house and neighboring homes went unscathed.
“It’s hard to make sense of it today but God hasn’t left us. Two of three people that were in the home that the plane landed on miraculously escaped. A couple people missed the flight and saved their lives,” New York Governor David Paterson told a news conference.
“So we just take what little we can and move forward.”
There were 44 passengers, four crew members and an off-duty pilot on board. Among the victims was Beverly Eckert, the widow of a September 11 victim and an advocate for survivors.
Another victim was Alison Des Forges, one of the world’s leading experts on the 1994 Rwanda genocide.
Witnesses in the Buffalo suburb of Clarence Center said the plane came out of the sky in a steep dive.
“I could hear what sounded like a high-pitched sound — a tube with air rushing through it,” Keith Burtis told CNN. “You could feel the ground shake.”
Commercial aircraft are equipped with de-icing systems but safety experts say even a small buildup of ice on the wings can affect aerodynamics.
Thursday’s disaster came less than a month after the successful crash landing of a US Airways jetliner on the Hudson River in New York City.
All 155 people on board survived after the plane hit birds, taking out both engines, and pilot Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger brought it down safely on the river.
Additional reporting by John Crawley, Randall Mikkelsen and Mohammad Zargham in Washington and Kyle Peterson in Chicago; Writing by Daniel Trotta; Editing by Todd Eastham