Lidle dies after plane crashes into NYC high-rise

Updated: October 12, 2006, 5:56 PM ET
ESPN.com news services

NEW YORK -- A small plane carrying New York Yankees pitcher Cory Lidle and his flight instructor slammed into a 40-story apartment building Wednesday, killing both in a crash that rained flaming debris onto the sidewalks and briefly raised fears of another terrorist attack.

Cory Lidle
Elsa/Getty ImagesFor his career, which spanned nine years with seven teams, Lidle was 82-72 with two saves and a 4.57 ERA.

A law enforcement official in Washington said Lidle -- an avid pilot who got his license on Feb. 9 -- was aboard the single-engine aircraft when it plowed into the 30th and 31st floors of the condominium high-rise on Manhattan's Upper East Side. Mayor Michael Bloomberg said both people aboard were killed.

Lidle's passport was found on the street, according to a federal official, speaking to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity. It was not immediately clear whether Lidle or his instructor, Tyler Stanger, was at the controls when the plane hit the building. Lidle had told reporters on Sunday that he was planning to get up in the air with Stanger this week to work on instrument training exercises.

Bloomberg did not confirm the names of the victims Wednesday afternoon but did say a flight instructor and a student pilot with 75 hours of experience were aboard and killed. Both bodies were found on the street below, and the plane's engine was found in one of the apartments, Bloomberg said. On Thursday, Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly identified the flight instructor as Stanger.

Residents were also allowed back into their apartments Thursday, except for the 29th through 31st floors, where most of the apartments were gutted by the fire and a six-story scorch mark marred the red brick.

Federal Aviation Administration records showed the single-engine plane was registered to Lidle, who had repeatedly assured reporters in recent weeks that flying was safe and that the Yankees -- who were traumatized in 1979 when catcher Thurman Munson was killed in the crash of a plane he was piloting -- had no reason to worry.

"The flying?" the 34-year-old Lidle, who had a home near Los Angeles, told The Philadelphia Inquirer this summer. "I'm not worried about it. I'm safe up there. I feel very comfortable with my abilities flying an airplane."

"No matter what's going on in your life, when you get up in that plane, everything's gone," Lidle told an interviewer with Comcast SportsNet in Philadelphia while flying his plane in April.

The crash came just four days after the Yankees' embarrassingly quick elimination from the playoffs, during which Lidle had been relegated to the bullpen. In recent days, Lidle had taken abuse from fans on sports talk radio for saying the team was unprepared.

Jeff Gross/Getty ImagesAn A's fan pays tribute to Lidle before Game 2 of the ALCS.

"This is a terrible and shocking tragedy that has stunned the entire Yankees organization," Yankees owner George Steinbrenner said in a statement. He offered his condolences to Lidle's wife, Melanie, and 6-year-old son.

A federal official, speaking on condition of anonymity, had said the plane issued a distress call before the crash. But National Transportation Safety Board member Debbie Hersman said at a late-night news conference that, "we've asked the FAA and they have reviewed some aircraft-control tapes. At this point they have no indication that there was a mayday call." Thursday morning, she said officials were continuing to review the tapes.

Hersman said debris was scattered everywhere at the crash scene, including aircraft parts and headsets on the ground. The propeller separated from the engine. Investigators also obtained the pilot's log book.

She said investigators were taking fuel samples, looking at maintenance records and examining Lidle's flight log book, found in the wreckage -- "anything that will give us a clue about what happened."

Hersman said Thursday afternoon investigators had recovered "all four corners" of the plane, referring to the nose, tail and both wings, as well as all control surfaces. She said there is "strong evidence" the plane's propellers were turning at the time of the crash.

The craft took off from New Jersey's Teterboro Airport at 2:21 p.m. and was in the air for about 20 minutes, authorities said. Bloomberg said Lidle and his flying companion were sightseeing and were taking a route that took them over the Statue of Liberty, the Brooklyn Bridge and the Empire State Building.

The FAA said it was too early to determine what might have caused the crash.

How the plane managed to penetrate airspace over one of the most densely packed sections of New York City was not clear. The plane was unusual in that it was equipped with a parachute in case of engine failure, but there was no sign the chute was used.

The crash rattled New Yorkers' nerves five years after the Sept. 11 attacks, but the FBI and Homeland Security quickly said there was no evidence it was anything but an accident. Nevertheless, within 10 minutes of the crash, fighter jets were over several cities, including New York, Washington, Detroit, Los Angeles and Seattle, Pentagon officials said.

The plane, flying north over the East River along the usual flight corridor, came through a hazy, cloudy sky and hit The Belaire -- a red-brick tower overlooking the river -- with a loud bang. It touched off a raging fire that cast a pillar of black smoke over the city and sent flames shooting from four windows on two adjoining floors. Firefighters put the blaze out in less than an hour.

Fifteen firefighters, five civilians and one police officer were taken to New York Presbyterian Hospital/Weill Cornell Medical Center with injuries from the crash.

CNN reported Wednesday night that the New York Police Department deployed six shifts of officers to the crash site. The police were equipped with heavy weaponry and flotation devices because of the building's proximity to the East River.

Large crowds gathered in the street in the largely wealthy New York neighborhood, with many people in tears and some trying to reach loved ones by cell phone.

"It wasn't until I was halfway home that I started shaking. The whole memory of an airplane flying into a building and across the street from your home. It's a little too close to home," said Sara Green, 40, who lives across the street from The Belaire. "It crossed my mind that it was something bigger or the start of something bigger."

Outside Lidle's home in Glendora, Calif., neighbors and others quickly converged. Keri Pasqua, a close friend of the player's wife, and Mary Varela, Lidle's mother-in-law, told reporters that Melanie Lidle wasn't home and they weren't certain if she knew about the crash.

"This is a tragedy for everybody involved," a teary-eyed Varela said.

Kevin Lidle, Cory Lidle's twin brother, said on CNN's "Larry King Live" that he had spoken to their parents, who were "obviously having a tough time."

"But what can you do? Somehow you hang in there and you get through it," he said. "I've had a lot of calls from friends and family, people calling and crying. And they've released some emotions, and I haven't done that yet. I don't know -- I guess I'm in some kind of state of shock."

Kevin Lidle was a baseball teammate of Jeff Anderson -- the son of Jerry Anderson, who survived the crash that killed Munson -- in 2000 with the independent Somerset (N.J.) Patriots.

Stanger, the flight instructor with him, operated a flight school in La Verne, Calif., and lived nearby with his wife and young child.

On Sunday, the day after the Yankees were eliminated from the playoffs, Cory Lidle cleaned out his locker at Yankee Stadium and talked about his interest in flying.

He said he intended to fly back to California in several days and planned to make a few stops. Lidle had reserved a room for Wednesday night at the historic Union Station hotel in downtown Nashville, Tenn., hotel spokeswoman Melanie Fly said.

Lidle discussed with reporters the plane crash that killed John F. Kennedy Jr. and how he had read the accident report on the NTSB Web site.

Lidle, acquired from the Philadelphia Phillies on July 30 along with outfielder Bobby Abreu, told The New York Times last month that his four-seat Cirrus SR20 was safe.

"The whole plane has a parachute on it," Lidle said. "Ninety-nine percent of pilots that go up never have engine failure, and the 1 percent that do usually land it. But if you're up in the air and something goes wrong, you pull that parachute, and the whole plane goes down slowly."

NTSB records indicate a total of 12 accidents involving the Cirrus SR20, first flown as a prototype in 1995. In two accidents this year, pilots reported engines losing power.

Lidle pitched 1 1/3 innings in the fourth and final game of the AL Division Series against the Detroit Tigers and gave up three earned runs but was not the losing pitcher. He had a 12-10 regular-season record with a 4.85 ERA.

He pitched with the Phillies before coming to the Yankees. He began his career in 1997 with the Mets and also pitched for Tampa Bay, Oakland, Toronto and Cincinnati.

Lidle's $6.3 million, two-year contract, agreed to with the Phillies in November 2004, contained a provision saying the team could get out of paying the remainder if he were injured or killed while flying a plane. Because the regular season is over, Lidle had already received the full amount.

After the Yankees' defeat at the hands of the Tigers, Lidle called in to WFAN sports talk radio two days before the crash to defend manager Joe Torre and said: "I want to win as much as anybody. But what am I supposed to do? Go cry in my apartment for the next two weeks."

Lidle was an outcast among some teammates throughout his career because he became a replacement player in 1995, when major-leaguers were on strike.

Although Lidle was a replacement player, his family is entitled to complete pension benefits and other union contract provisions. The only thing Lidle and other replacement players do not receive is a cut of the union's licensing (from baseball cards, fantasy sports, etc).

Among the baseball stars killed in plane crashes were Pittsburgh Pirates outfielder Roberto Clemente, killed Dec. 31, 1972, at age 38 while en route to Nicaragua to aid earthquake victims; and Munson, the Yankee catcher killed Aug. 2, 1979, at age 32 in Canton, Ohio.

"It's just sadder than sad," said New York Mets pitching coach Rick Peterson, who was Lidle's pitching coach in Oakland. "It's horrific. It's almost unbelievable. It's a surreal moment."

Young May Cha, a 23-year-old Cornell University medical student, said she was walking back from the grocery store down East 72nd Street when she saw something come across the sky and crash into the building. Cha said there appeared to be smoke coming from behind the aircraft, and "it looked like it was flying erratically for the short time that I saw it."

Former NTSB director Jim Hall said in a telephone interview he does not understand how a plane could get so close to a New York City building after Sept. 11.

"We're under a high alert and you would assume that if something like this happened, people would have known about it before it occurred, not after," Hall said.

Mystery writer Carol Higgins Clark, daughter of author Mary Higgins Clark, lives in the building but was not home at the time. She described the building's residents as a mix of actors, doctors, lawyers, writers and people with second homes.

Lillian Snower Beacham, 52, said her 36th-floor apartment smelled of heavy smoke, and shattered glass and other debris covered her windowsills. Beacham saw the plane hit her building four floors above her, then watched pieces of the plane fall to the ground. Her first thoughts were of terrorism.

"That's why I took nothing and ran. That's exactly the first thought you have," said Beacham. "It's just surreal, absolutely surreal. The images of 9/11 come straight at you. You just run."

Despite initial fears of a terrorist attack, all three New York City-area airports continued to operate normally, FAA spokesman Jim Peters said. The White House said neither President Bush nor Vice President Dick Cheney was moved to secure locations.

The Belaire was built in the late 1980s and is situated near Sotheby's auction house. It has 183 apartments, many of which sell for more than $1 million.

Several lower floors are occupied by doctors and administrative offices, as well as guest facilities for family members of patients at the Hospital for Special Surgery, hospital spokeswoman Phyllis Fisher said. No patients were in the high-rise, Fisher said.

New York Mets third base coach Manny Acta said he lives in The Belaire. Unsure whether he would be able to get into the building, Acta said the Mets found him a place to stay.

"It's not just about him. It's about the pilot, the co-pilot and everyone else in the building to think about," Acta said.

Rob Manfred, executive vice president of MLB, told ESPN's Karl Ravech that neither of Wednesday night's championship series games would be postponed because of the crash and Lidle's death. However, Game 1 of the NLCS between the St. Louis Cardinals and Mets was postponed because of a steady rain.

Information from The Associated Press was used in this report.