The plane smashed into the 52-story condominium tower at mid-afternoon Wednesday, touching off a raging fire and sending debris falling to the street below. City officials say more than 150 firefighters responded to the blaze, which was confined to a small area of the high-rise building.
Smoke could be seen billowing into the sky over the upper east side of Manhattan, along the East River. Eyewitness Zenel Perezic works as the manager of a building directly across the river. He says he was standing at the river's edge when he saw the small twin-engine plane swerve wildly.
"I saw the plane coming very low," said Zenel Perezic. "It was flying from east to west direction, low, it made a sharp turn there, and instantly made a 90 degree wing turn and slammed into the red building."
Perezic says the plane appeared to be in trouble, leading him to believe crash was an accident.
"This happened very fast," he said. "I heard the engine choking. It seemed to me the plane was completely out of control, so I had like a split second to think what is going on here, because I am looking at the plane and it going so fast and so low. I just finished thought in my head and the plane crashed."
The crash, just a little more than five years after the attack on the World Trade Center, immediately touched off fears of a terrorist attack. City, state and federal officials, however, say there was no evidence of terrorism.
The governor of New York, George Pataki, went on television shortly after the crash to reassure New Yorkers.
"I just want the people of New York to know that it is virtually certain now there was no indication, no link to any terrorist act against New York or against the country and whatever can done to be proactive for the people of New York to have confidence in our safety and our freedom is being done," said Governor Pataki.
The commander of U.S. military forces in North America, Admiral Timothy Keating, told the Cable News Network he ordered "a large number" of fighter jets into the air when he first heard about the crash. He said airborne radar aircraft were also launched.
Admiral Keating would not say exactly where the aircraft were deployed, but he said the aircraft had been sent up "just in case" the incident was part of a terrorist attack.
Governor Pataki said he too, like many New Yorkers, immediately had visions of another 9/11-type attack.
"The first time you hear that a plane has hit a building in New York, you can't help but think back to September 11th and wonder what in fact happened, but in a relatively short period of time the indications were that there was no threat, there was no link here, and, for all the horror and the tragedy, this was not an attack upon New York or America," he said.
A White House spokesman said President Bush had been briefed on the crash, and is staying informed.
Among those killed was a player for the New York Yankees baseball team. Officials confirmed that the Cory Lidle, a Yankees pitcher, was the owner of the plane and was on board.