A commuter plane crashed into a house while coming in to land in New York state, sparking a fiery explosion that killed 49 people on board and one person on the ground.
It was the first fatal crash of a commercial airliner in the US in 2.5 years.
Witnesses heard the twin turboprop aircraft sputtering before it went down in light snow and fog around 10.20pm local time yesterday. Flames silhouetted the shattered home after Continental Connection Flight 3407 plummeted into it around about five miles from Buffalo Niagara International Airport.
"The whole sky was lit up orange," said Bob Dworak, who lives less than a mile from the crash site. "All the sudden, there was a big bang, and the house shook."
The 74-seat Q400 Bombardier aircraft, operated by Colgan Air, was flying from Newark Liberty International Airport in New Jersey and preparing to land at Buffalo Niagara International Airport.
A spokeswoman for the Department of Homeland Security in Washington, said there was no indication terrorism was involved.
"All indications are that this was an air-safety event," said spokeswoman Amy Kudwa.
The National Transportation Safety Board said it was sending a team of crash investigators to Buffalo early today.
Hours after the crash, the task of retrieving remains had not yet begun. Clarence emergency control director Dave Bissonette called it "still a hot scene."
"It basically drove right into the top of the house from my perspective," Bissonette said. "I'm no expert on re-creation, but it landed on the house, clearly a direct hit."
Prior to the crash, the voice of a female pilot on Continental Flight 3407 could be heard communicating with air traffic controllers, according to a recording of the Buffalo air traffic control's radio messages shortly before the crash captured by the website www.liveatc.net.
Neither the controller nor the pilot showed any concerns that anything was out of the ordinary as the airplane was asked to fly at 2,300 feet.
A minute later, the controller tried to contact the plane but heard no response. After a pause, he tried to contact the plane again.
Eventually he told an unidentified listener to contact authorities on the ground in the Clarence area.
"You need to find if anything is on the ground," the controller said. "All I can tell you is the aircraft is over the marker (landing beacon), and we're not talking to them now."
After the crash, at least two pilots are heard saying they have been picking up ice on their wings.
"We've been getting ice since 20 miles south of the airport," one said.
While residents of the neighbourhood where the plane went down were used to planes rumbling overhead, witnesses said this one sounded louder than usual, sputtered and made some odd noises.
Neighbour David Luce said he and his wife were working on their computers when they heard the plane come in low.
"It didn't sound normal," he said. "We heard it for a few seconds, then it stopped, then a couple of seconds later was this tremendous explosion."
After hearing the crash, Dworak drove over to take a look, and "all we were seeing was 50 to 100 foot flames and a pile of rubble on the ground. It looked like the house just got destroyed the instant it got hit."
Witness Tony Tatro said he saw the plane flying low and knew it was in trouble.
"It was not spiraling at all. The left wing was a little low," he told WGRZ-TV.
One person in the home was killed, and two others inside, Karen Wielinski, 57, and her daughter, Jill, 22, were able to escape with minor injuries. Twelve homes were evacuated near the crash site.
Erie County Executive Chris Collins said the plane was carrying 5,000 pounds of fuel and apparently exploded on impact.
Firefighters got as close to the plane as they could, he said. "They were shouting out to see if there were any survivors on the plane. Truly a very heroic effort, but there were no survivors."
It was the first fatal crash of a commercial airliner in the United States since 27 August, 2006, when 49 people were killed after a Comair jetliner took off from a Lexington, Kentucky, runway that was too short.
Houston-based Continental Airlines issued a statement saying that preliminary information showed the plane carried 44 passengers and a crew of four.
About 30 relatives and others who arrived at the airport in the overnight hours were escorted into a private area and then taken by bus to a senior citizens centre in the neighbouring town of Cheektowaga, where counselors and representatives from Continental waited to help.
"At this time, the full resources of Colgan Air's accident response team are being mobilised and will be devoted to cooperating with all authorities responding to the accident and to contacting family members and providing assistance to them," the statement said.
"Continental extends its deepest sympathy to the family members and loved ones of those involved in this accident," said Larry Kellner, chairman and CEO of Continental Airlines, in a later statement. "Our thoughts and prayers are with all of the family members and loved ones of those involved in the flight 3407 tragedy."
Manassas, Virginia-based Colgan Air said in a statement that airline personnel and local authorities were working to confirm the number of people on board and their identities.
As family members of the victims trickled in to the airport in the overnight hours, they were escorted by airport personnel to a private area.
Chris Kausner, believing his sister was on the plane, rushed to a hastily established command centre after calling his vacationing mother in Florida to break the news.
"To tell you the truth, I heard my mother make a noise on the phone that I've never heard before. So not good, not good," he told reporters.
Clarence is a growing eastern suburb of Buffalo, largely residential but with rural stretches. The crash site is a street of older, single-family homes which apparently back up to wooded area.
While the fire was contained, smoke still billowed over the scene about four hours later. Houses in the neighbourhood are only about 20-25 feet apart.
"The fact that the damage is limited to the one residence is really amazing," said state police spokeswoman Rebecca Gibbons.