Terror from the skies: Manhattan's nightmare revisited

Wednesday's plane crash in New York brought back painful memories of September 11. David Usborne talked to the survivors
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It was just another Wednesday afternoon and Ilana Benhuri was sitting at her computer in her apartment, number 40ABG, in the Belaire building on East 72nd Street in the Upper East Side. Her husband, Dr Parviz Benhuri, was at work, but her housekeeper was cleaning up in another room.

Unbeknownst to her, an aviation emergency was unfolding outside. A private aircraft was in trouble, banking erratically from side to side and zig-zagging inland into Manhattan from the narrow corridor that is open to small plane and helicopter traffic over the waters of the East River. If Ms Benhuri, 50, had looked out she would have had at least a few seconds warning. It was coming right at her.

Then, the shock. Her plate-glass windows, which gave her a privileged view of the river and Upper Manhattan, exploded with a mighty bang. All at once, the apartment was transformed into a hell of leaping flames and the screaming of metal against cement. The still-rotating propeller, part of a wing and the engine of the Cirrus SR20 aircraft skidded across her floor.

Anyone who lives in a Manhattan high-rise has had nightmares since 11 September 2001 - a strange noise, the shattering of glass and concrete and suddenly the floor beneath you begins to tremble. It's a symptom of a paranoia that lingers within all of us in this town. But thus began a real-life drama that enveloped not just Ms Benhuri, her maid and everyone else in the Belaire at the time, but all of Manhattan.

To everyone, it just seemed unthinkable. Once again, we were being told a small plane had hit a building on our crowded island, just like we were told in the first few minutes after the first impact of 9/11. Sirens wailed, cell phones went dead, smoke filled our sky.

Jet fighters were scrambled, not just over New York but over Washington DC and other cities all across the United States and first instincts asked if another terror attack was under way. But the chapters in this new drama proceeded with shocking speed. Barely an hour passed before all agreed this was no more than an accident - although a freakish one for certain.

If the front end of the plane was left on Ms Benhuri's floor, what remained had fallen to the street below. It was a gruesome scene that greeted firefighters, some forced to enter the building on hands and knees because of dense black smoke. There were burning wings as well as the mangled cabin. Two incinerated bodies lay on the pavement, still strapped in their seats. One body had been sliced in half.

Then, someone spotted a passport on the road and the headlines that editors would be writing later in the night were suddenly changed. There was something else to shock the city. The name inside was Cory Lidle, a 32-year-old star baseball player who just this summer had been traded from Philadelphia to our hometown heroes, the Yankees. A public figure had died here and a Yankees star, no less. The second body was that of his flight instructor, tentatively identified as Tyler Stanger from California.

The cliché "only in New York" is trotted out daily, but you can say there is some truth in it. It is not enough that a plane flies slap into a skyscraper in the middle of an ordinary weekday afternoon, a famous person has to be on it too.

And now, so many questions. What caused the plane to lose its way? And, more urgently, how is that the aviation rules above this country's biggest city are so lax that a small plane can putter around it, without any kind of flight plan, permission from anyone or even any requirement that it remain in contact with air traffic controllers? Surely there is something wrong here.

But before all of this - before the discovery of Lidle's singed passport - the horror hundreds of feet above the ground was only just beginning and at the centre of it all was Ms Benhuri. Amazingly, she was still alive, with cuts to her neck and back and flames licking her body. She leapt to her feet and called to Evelyn Reategua, her housekeeper of six years.

The roaring of the initial fire-ball meant the two women couldn't hear each other at first. "Evelyn, help me! Eveylyn, help me!" the doctor's wife screamed.

"I saw my boss bathed in blood, her face, her neck," Ms Reategua explained a few hours later. "I grabbed her and said, 'Let's get out of here'. She couldn't hear me, just yelled for me to help." She went on: "The floor was on fire and looked like it was going to cave in."

Thankfully, that didn't happen and the two women staggered, arms interlocked, down a corridor that was rapidly filling with smoke to the emergency stairwell. Like other residents and visitors who were in the building at the time, they didn't dare take a lift, even though one was still working - a lucky break that allowed firefighters to ascend quickly and extinguish the fires in several apartments on the 30th and 31st floors.

A few floors above, Luis Gonzalez, 23, was working for a construction crew on renovating an empty apartment. Unlike Ms Benhuri, he was looking out the window moments before the tragedy and he saw exactly what was coming. Indeed, he says he even saw the face of the pilot as the plane began bearing down on the Belaire. He thought he and his mates were done for. "It was coming right at us. The whole building shook and then we ran for the elevator," he said.

Higher still in one of the penthouse flats, another housekeeper, Ann Robert, was ironing her employer's clothes. Her 21-year-old daughter was there too, watching television. "I heard a boom and saw smoke and ashes outside the kitchen window," she said, "and then the painter came running in frantically from working in the baby's room."

Everyone dashed for the stairs. "Death was going through my mind," Ms Robert said. "When I saw the smoke, I did not know if we would make it out alive. As I was coming down the stairs I thought that the whole building might come down and that me and my daughter might go at the same time. But once we got past the 30th floor, I said in my mind that maybe we were safe."

Flying was a new passion for Mr Lidle. He had earned his preliminary pilot's license last winter, but still had advanced instrument training to fulfil. The Cirrus was his new toy. Bought second-hand, it was a model favoured by many amateur aviators, not least because of its fancy finish and high-end safety features, notably a parachute that can be deployed by pulling a red-lever in the cockpit's ceiling in the event the single engine loses power. After being traded to New York in July, he flew the plane north from Philadelphia to the Teterboro executive airport just west of Manhattan in New Jersey, where he planned to keep it for the rest of this season. He described that trip in an interview in September. "I didn't fly around New York, but I flew straight up north," Lidle said. "I don't like to go in the big boys' airspace."

Yet, on Wednesday, that is exactly what he did. Planning to head on to Tennessee, he and Mr Stanger apparently decided on a little sight-seeing first, looping around the Statue of Liberty and then heading north up the East River, past the UN building and beyond the 59th Street Bridge. It seems to have been an odd decision, first because it was a particularly gloomy day with low clouds threatening rain. But more than that, it was a route that contained specific risks.

The two men were not doing anything wrong. Under the rules, any private aircraft can follow the rivers around Manhattan without a flight plan and without talking to air traffic control so long as they stay low. Pilots fly under Visual Flight Rules, meaning they must simply look out the window to avoid collisions. But the corridor over the East River is narrow above the 59th Street Bridge. It's also a dead end. Before going further north pilots must get permission from nearby La Guardia airport or otherwise perform a tight U-turn in airspace that can be crowded with other aircraft and is hemmed in on the left and right by tall buildings.

Teams of investigators from the FBI and also the National Transport Safety Board, NTSB, were in New York yesterday pouring over radar records to try to determine what happened to the Cirrus as it approached the end of the East River corridor. No easy answers were at hand. Possibilities include some kind of mechanical malfunction, a U-turn that went wrong perhaps because of a fairly brisk easterly wind at the time, or possibly an emergency maneouvre to avoid a collision that caused a loss of control.

The crash has unleashed a chorus of concern about the casual approach to private aviation around Manhattan. Imagine if instead of Lidle in the plane, it was a terrorist and his target was the UN.

"The public saw Wednesday that a small aircraft crashing into a high-rise causes far less damage than a jetliner," USA Today newspaper said in an editorial. "But should a terrorist get hold of a plane and fill it with explosives or a biological weapon, the public also saw how little there is to stop him from flying into such New York icons as the United Nations headquarters and the Statute of Liberty, both of which Lidle flew past."

That debate as well as the investigation into the cause of the crash will doubtless play out over several weeks. Meanwhile, the residents of Manhattan can now only be thankful that their worst thoughts on Wednesday did not come to pass and begin to resettle their nerves. Ms Benhuri, meanwhile, remained in hospital last night with burns on 15 per cent of her body but her condition was stable and she will be fine. "She's in shock," her husband said, but he added: "She's lucky she made it. It's a miracle."

It is a bad dream anyone who lives in a high-rise tower in Manhattan has probably had at least once in the years since 11 September 2001.