(4th update) US plane crashes on house killing 49

Agence France-Presse

Posted at Feb 13 2009 03:01 PM | Updated as of Feb 14 2009 02:45 AM

NEW YORK - A commuter plane crashed into a house in New York state unleashing a fireball and killing all 48 passengers and crew and one person on the ground, officials said Friday.

Flames higher than nearby houses lit up the night sky for hours.

Firefighters from a nearby fire station were quickly at the scene, but despite what one local official called "heroic" efforts, were unable to get to the passengers and crew trapped in the inferno.

The Bombardier Dash 8 Q400 plane, operated for Continental Airlines, came down about five minutes before it was due to land in Buffalo after a flight from Newark, New Jersey.

New York state governor David Paterson said "44 passengers were killed along with four crew members and at least one person on the ground."

An Erie County official said Continental Airlines flight 3407 crashed at 10:20 pm (0320 GMT) in Clarence Center, New York as it neared the runway.

Air traffic controllers desperately tried to make contact with the pilot as the plane, run by Colgan Air for Continental, approached Buffalo.

One controller asks another plane to look for it, according to a conversation aired by local television station WGRZ. He then asks someone to contact police on the ground.

"This aircraft was five miles out and now all of the sudden we have no response from this aircraft," he said.

The Buffalo News newspaper reported 12 homes were evacuated due to the risk from the burning jet fuel.

County Emergency Coordinator David Bissonette told reporters the plane have landed right on the house.

"The fueslage of the plane lies directly on the footprint of the house," Bissonette said. "It basically dove right into the top of the house ... clearly a direct hit.

"It's remarkable that it only took one house, as devastating as that was. It could have easily wiped out that entire neighborhood in a streaking run type of thing," he said. Nearby homes suffered only minimal damage.

Erie County Executive Chris Collins told CNN television the plane was carrying 5,800 pounds of jet fuel and turned into a fireball on impact.

Bissonette said the only recognizable part of the plane remaining is the tail.

The smoldering wreckage was too hot for investigators to approach and FBI agent Laurie Bennett said the collection of evidence would not begin until the scene was deemed safe.

She said there was no way of knowing what caused the crash.

One witness, who gave his name only as Tony, told a local television station that the plane flew right over his car, "nose down."

"Left wing was slightly down, pitched sideways, if you will," he said. "It was on a direct line down."

David Luce, who lives near the crash scene, told the Buffalo News he heard a huge explosion and saw flames up to 50 feet (18 meters) in the air.

"It sounded quite loud, and then the sound stopped," Luce said. "Then one or two seconds later, there was a thunderous explosion. I thought something hit our house. It shook our whole house."

"There was the initial boom, and then these cannon shots ... these loud secondary explosions, and they went on for about 10 minutes."

After a few minutes, Luce said he walked out to take a look at the wreckage and saw the house was destroyed.

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

There was snow and sleet in the area at the time of the crash, which is not unusual for the area this time of year.

Continental Airlines pledged its full support to Colgan Air, "so that together we can provide as much support as possible for all concerned."

"Our thoughts and prayers are with all of the family members and loved ones of those involved in the flight 3407 tragedy," the airline's chief executive, Larry Kellner, said in a statement.