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PAULA ZAHN NOW

New York Yankees Pitcher Killed in Plane Crash

Aired October 11, 2006 - 20:00   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.


PAULA ZAHN, CNN ANCHOR: Welcome, everybody. Glad to have you with us tonight.
We continue CNN's breaking news coverage of tonight's "Top Story": a high-rise horror right here in New York City. Here's what we know right now.

At least two people died when a small plane crashed into an apartment building this afternoon, and exploded. Just a short while ago, the New York Yankees confirmed that one of the victims is their pitcher, Cory Lidle, who owned the plane. Government officials emphasize there is no evidence of terrorism. It's apparently just a terrible, tragic accident.

As we speak, we're looking at exclusive live pictures of the burned-out apartments. They are early illuminated by bright lights, with investigators silhouetted against the broken windows.

Allan Chernoff has been on the scene since shortly after the plane hit the building.

He has the very latest details for us now -- Allan.

ALLAN CHERNOFF, CNN SENIOR CORRESPONDENT: Thank you, Paula.

Shortly after that plane actually did hit the building, witnesses told me they were wondering, was this another 9/11, another terror attack? But a little bit afterwards, when they saw the relatively limited impact on the building, the flames being put out very quickly, they were quite clear that this was not another terror attack.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

CHERNOFF (voice-over): The small private Cirrus SR-20, similar to this SR-22, with Yankee pitcher Cory Lidle and an unidentified flight instructor aboard, took off from New Jersey's Teterboro Airport at 2:29 this afternoon. Air traffic controllers tracked it circling above the Statue of Liberty and heading up Manhattan's East River.

Then, somewhere near the Queensboro Bridge, controllers lost track of the plane. Witnesses reported seeing it flying erratically.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: No, it was something small. But it was, like, zigzagging. Like, at first, I thought it was a helicopter, because it was, like, something broken or something, because it zigzagged down. And it was coming from the side of the water. CHERNOFF: Data from the aircraft tracking Web site Passer.com (ph) show a plane matching the flight path of the doomed aircraft, traveling up the East River, then disappearing. Then, at 2:42, a call came in to 911, reporting the crash.

This man was on the 46th floor of the building that was hit.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I heard a loud noise. I thought it was a helicopter, because we got a view from both sides of the building. And we're doing construction. And when I looked out the window, I saw the airplane coming towards us. You know, I don't know what happened. I don't know if he really tried to hit the -- the building or tried to avoid the bulling.

CHERNOFF: Lidle and the other passenger aboard the plane were killed.

The day had many echoes of 9/11. New Yorkers were once again set on edge, and more than 100 of New York's bravest, firefighters, responded almost immediately.

But Mayor Michael Bloomberg said this incident was an accident.

MICHAEL BLOOMBERG (R), MAYOR OF NEW YORK: But there is nothing to suggest that anything remotely like terrorism was involved in this.

CHERNOFF: Still, nerves were frayed. Eleven firefighters and five civilians suffered minor injuries, the mayor said, but, remarkably, no one in the building was hurt.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

CHERNOFF: And, as we look at the building right now, you can see the firefighters still working, still examining there.

The apartments adjacent to the ones that were actually hit, they actually seemed relatively untouched, even the glass still in place. And that, of course, helps to explain why relatively few people were injured in this horrific, horrific accident.

The Yankees late today put out a statement, George Steinbrenner, the principal owner, saying: "This is a terrible and shocking tragedy. It has stunned the entire Yankees organization."

Paula, only a few days ago, Steinbrenner was steaming about the Yankees' loss in the first round of the baseball playoffs. This certainly puts all of that into perspective -- Paula.

ZAHN: It is such a horrible story, and I guess the most shocking part of it is the fact you just reported, that authorities don't believe at this hour anybody inside the building was hurt.

But I understand there is a -- a pretty sophisticated search going on for perhaps even the parachute that was part of an ejection system of this plane. Have you gotten any confirmation of that?

CHERNOFF: We haven't.

We haven't received confirmation of that, but, as you can see, they are continuing the investigation. They -- they want to know exactly what went wrong. And, of course, they -- they want any clues that can possibly send them in the right direction tonight.

ZAHN: Allan Chernoff, thanks so much.

As you just heard, the words a plane has crashed into a high-rise gave many New Yorkers a very frightening flashback to the 9/11 terror attacks. I got the chills seeing everybody look up at that high-rise building today, as did all New Yorkers.

With me tonight, eyewitnesses and people who actually live in the building or happened to be near the building at the time of the crash.

Let's get started with Joanne Hartlaub, who was exactly right across the street, and saw it happen.

Thanks so much for joining us. I know you're still pretty shaken up.

(CROSSTALK)

JOANNE HARTLAUB, PLANE CRASH EYEWITNESS: I -- I definitely am.

ZAHN: To the extent that you're comfortable describing it to us, what is it that you remembered upon impact?

HARTLAUB: Actually, I was working out at the gym, and I was looking out the large windows facing exactly where the plane hit. I actually saw it before it hit, because I...

ZAHN: Now, was it being flown erratically? A lot of reports...

HARTLAUB: No. I -- I -- I...

(CROSSTALK)

ZAHN: ... the plane had taken a sharp turn straight into the building?

HARTLAUB: I have to tell you -- and I did see it -- I did not see any wings on it. I thought that it was a large engine that had fallen off of a -- you know, a plane. I did not see wings.

I -- and there was smoke coming out of it. So, that's what I'm talking to the police about. There were no wings on it. It was just the main part of the plane.

ZAHN: What did it sound like?

HARTLAUB: Terrible.

It was like an earthquake. And just the -- the impact was incredible. All the windows were blown out. It just burst into flames. I saw two people right across from me running frantically. And I didn't know if they realized what had happened. So, I'm standing by the window waving, with my arms flailing, saying, please, get out of the building. We're yelling at them.

Then, I picked up the phone, and I called 911 immediately, and got on the air with someone. They put me right through.

(CROSSTALK)

ZAHN: Describe what you saw, then, after the impact of -- of this plane hitting the building? Were people screaming out of the building? Was there a sense of panic?

HARTLAUB: I didn't -- I didn't see people coming out of the building. I just saw these huge pieces flying out from the building on fire, and starting fires down on the sidewalk.

ZAHN: Joanne, if you wouldn't mind standing by, I'm going to bring Marla Kaufman into our conversation. She also saw the crash. She joins us now from the scene.

Marla, thanks so much for joining us.

I don't whether you heard any of Joanne's descriptions, but she doesn't remember actually seeing wings on the plane as it hit the building. What did you see?

MARLA KAUFMAN, PLANE CRASH EYEWITNESS: Yes, I don't remember seeing that, actually, either. It happened so quickly.

First, I was in a -- a doctor's office across the street, at Dr. O'Mally's (ph). And you heard this big, large, you know, heavy noise. So, everybody turned to the window, when you heard the noise. And, then, all of the sudden, this big ball, bursting with flames, it shot out from the building. And it was like chaos. And it was surreal that I thought -- I said, was that a body that fell out?

And I'm trying to move the seats in the office, and look down at the ground to see what -- what fell down on the ground. And there are people running and -- and screaming. And you weren't sure exactly what it was.

And, then, of course, right away, I turned to terrorism. That's what I thought. And I was in the office with my mother. And she had foot surgery, so she couldn't really move. And I was trying to get her towards the elevator. And, over the loudspeaker, they said everybody had to stay in the building. So, -- and they said for us to calm down, that it was just an explosion across the street, and everything was OK.

But I still didn't feel OK. And I said to my mother, I really think that we have to find a way out of here. Something's wrong. And she said, but it's just an apartment building. Why would you think terrorism? And my thought that it was, like, to detour everybody downtown, you know, the police and the fire department, so they can go hit somewhere else. ZAHN: Well, that's certainly...

KAUFMAN: So, that was my first thought.

ZAHN: ... reflects what a lot of New Yorkers feared today. All kinds of horrible things go through your mind when you hear about something like this happening.

Marla Kaufman, Joanne Kaufman, thank you for sharing your stories with us tonight.

Now, if you're not familiar with Cory Lidle, just days ago, stories surfaced about the Yankee pitcher's passion for flight.

Jason Carroll joins me now with more on his life -- Jason.

JASON CARROLL, CNN CORRESPONDENT: And, Paula, this -- this incident has completely devastated the Yankees team.

Yankees owner George Steinbrenner was the one who actually confirmed that Lidle had been killed in the crash. He released a statement, calling the incident a terrible and shocking tragedy.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

CARROLL (voice-over): In the world of sports, Cory Lidle made his career on the mound in the Major Leagues. He was a pitcher for nine years, new to the New York Yankees, traded just two months ago from the Philadelphia Phillies.

But playing ball wasn't Lidle's only passion. Flying was as well.

SCOTT GRAHAM, PHILADELPHIA PHILLIES ANNOUNCER: He was adamant about the fact that he was going to do it not only well, but safely. And he was very proud of the way he had handled himself in that process, and was very proud of the way that he had handled himself in flying a plane.

CARROLL: But something went terribly wrong. Late this afternoon, Lidle's single-engine aircraft, a Cirrus SR-20, crashed into a Manhattan apartment building.

Yankees general manager Brian Cashman expressed sorrow on behalf of the team.

BRIAN CASHMAN, GENERAL MANAGER, NEW YORK YANKEES: And we're incredibly saddened by this news today. It's -- it's a shock. And I ask everybody to keep their prayers for his family.

CARROLL: Lidle earned his pilot's license last February. He had logged 400 hours of flight time, and recently told "The New York Times" how safe he felt in the air, saying -- quote -- "The whole plane has a parachute on it. Ninety-nine percent of pilots that go up never have engine failure, and the 1 percent that do usually land it."

Lidle's flight instructor, Tyler Stanger, said he was the best student he ever had.

Lidle, 34 years old, was from Hollywood, California. He was married and had a 6-year-old son, Christopher.

Yankee shortstop Derek Jeter, in a statement, said: "Spending the last few months as Cory's teammate, I came to know him as a great man. I want to share my deepest sympathies with his wife, Melanie, and his son."

(END VIDEOTAPE)

CARROLL: And this is not the first time the Yankees have experienced this type of tragedy. In 1979, Yankees catcher Thurman Munson was killed in a crash of a plane he was flying -- Paula.

ZAHN: Jason Carroll, thanks so much.

Now you're about to see some extraordinary and eerie moments that show just how passionate Cory Lidle was about flying. It's an amazing interview with Lidle, while he actually at the controls of another small plane last April, doing what he loved.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

CORY LIDLE, MAJOR LEAGUE BASEBALL PLAYER: Make sure that the fuel is full in each tank. Ready to jump in.

Clear.

As you can see, we're second in line.

(LAUGHTER)

LIDLE: On the takeoff, we're going to get up to 55, 60 knots, and just start pulling back, nice and slow

We're not going to get too high today. We're going to try and stay under 1,500. So, when we go over towards the city, we won't be in Philadelphia's airspace.

Right now, we're heading right towards Pine Valley. There's Pine Valley, the world's best golf course right there. That's sweet. I played that course about two weeks ago.

It's a good feeling. No matter what's going on, on the ground in your life, you can go up in the air, and -- and everything's gone. You know, you -- you don't think about baseball. You don't -- you don't think about anything. It's just something that takes you away from -- from everyday life.

I love being in a plane, and looking down, and seeing traffic on the freeway.

I found out that I love it. You know, one thing I'm not going to do is beg anyone to go with me. If they don't want to go, if they're scared, or they don't trust me, that's fine. It's not going to hurt my feelings.

But I -- I love it. I'm going to continue to do it.

I wish we could go over by the field.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: That would be cool.

LIDLE: I don't -- I don't want to get my license taken away, though.

(LAUGHTER)

LIDLE: This is the first time that I have actually flew over the city. It can put things into perspective, but it's really hard to -- unless it's like a stadium, it's really pick out landmarks from the -- from the air.

It's almost like you're 16, getting your license. You can go to the mall whenever you want. This is pretty much that same feeling, maybe times a hundred, because you can go just about anywhere you want. And just, you know, to be up in the air, looking down on everything on the ground, is pretty cool, a pretty cool feeling.

There's the airport right there.

Cross Keys, Cessna, six-Charlie-alpha on final for runway nine, Cross Keys.

And we're down.

Yes, stick the landing, walk away, and it's -- it's a good day.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

ZAHN: Once again, that video shot last April of Cory Lidle while he was flying.

And it's difficult to see moments like that, especially for close friends of his.

Dennis Deitch was one of Lidle's closest friends. He's a sportswriter with "The Delaware County Daily Times." He knew Lidle when he played with the Phillies in Philadelphia.

Thanks so much for being with us. And our thoughts go out to you tonight.

DENNIS DEITCH, "THE DELAWARE COUNTY DAILY TIMES": OK. Thanks, Paula.

ZAHN: I was watching your face as you were watching your good friend fly not too long ago. Help us understand just how passionate he was about flying.

DEITCH: Very much so. I mean, it was all the past year, too. You couldn't walk into the clubhouse without seeing him with his navigation device. You would go over and ask him about it, and he would show you the different features of it, show you how different airports have different, you know, angles at which you approach the -- the runways, and, you know, the airspace, how it changed, depending on where you were.

I mean, he was really, really into it. And that's the way he was with most of the things he loved. I mean, baseball, he was like that. He was an avid golfer. He had passion about that. He loved playing poker. But this really -- this was as passionate as I saw him about anything. He really did love flying.

ZAHN: And it wasn't just a hobby. It was something that he took very seriously, as you have just described, something he studied.

DEITCH: Yes. I mean, he was definitely into it, wanted to get as many hours as he could in the air.

Definitely didn't get lazy with anything. In fact, he got his new plane back in July. And I remember talking to him about his first flight in it. And it had different landing gear. It was situated different on this plane than most of the ones he had rented. And he actually had a pretty hard landing. And -- and it kind of woke him up.

He said: You know, I really need some work on this plane. It's -- it's different than planes I have flown. I really need to keep working hard on this, and -- and adjust to this new plane I have.

So, he was -- he was very well aware that, you know, he was a novice flyer, and that he needed hours in the air, and really needed to work on what he was doing.

ZAHN: How did his wife and family feel about his passion for flying?

DEITCH: You know, we -- we talked about it briefly a couple times.

I think his wife had natural reservations, but, overall, was supportive. His son is very young. So, I -- you know, I think he probably thought it was a -- a thrill, and probably looked forward to going up with dad in the plane.

But, you know, it wasn't a sticking point, it didn't seem. But, you know, everyone has concerns about a loved one, when, you know, they're taking on a hobby that, you know, does have risk to it. So...

ZAHN: And he made that pretty clear when he admitted to you, when he took control of this new plane, that -- that it was a wakeup call; he had stuff to learn?

DEITCH: Yes. I mean, well, he was very -- and he was very passionate about getting it right. I mean, we heard earlier his -- his flight instructor said he was the best student he ever had. And, I mean, I could imagine that, because he really was dedicated to -- to flying, and -- and kind of was setting it up, I think, for a, you know, after -- a post-career hobby for himself, and -- and, you know, even kind of dabbled about whether he would want to do that even, you know, I don't know as a career or anything, but wanted to expand his boundaries when it came to flying planes.

ZAHN: Well, Dennis Deitch, we appreciate your joining us tonight. We know it's not an easy night for you.

DEITCH: Yes. Thank you.

ZAHN: Good of you to join us.

And whether you were here in New York or you were watching TV, the sight of a burning high-rise instantly brought back memories of 9/11. Next, in our "Top Story" coverage: the military's response to early fears that this could have been a terrorist attack.

And how safe are the busy skies over New York City and the millions of people on the ground? We will explain.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I work in that building, and they evacuated everybody out. And there was -- debris was still coming down when we came out of the building.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: What was it like when you came out?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Chaos. I was so scared, let me tell you. I was so scared, because I thought it was another terrorist attack.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I heard the loud crash. And then I turned the corner. There were flames coming out of the side of the building. And, all of a sudden, about a minute later, debris from the side of the building fell down to the street. And then it was a cloud of black smoke, and you couldn't see anything else.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

ZAHN: More on our "Top Story" coverage of today's tragic crash of a plane into a high-rise building in New York that killed New York Yankees pitcher Cory Lidle.

The city has been on heightened alert and on edge since the terrorist attacks of 9/11. And, today, there was immediate reaction on the streets. Could this possibly be another terrorist attack? But what was the U.S. military's response to the crash?

For that, we go straight to senior Pentagon correspondent Jamie McIntyre, who joins us from the Pentagon tonight.

So, Jamie, I understand, as the story was unfolding, that we were on the air with Admiral Timothy Keating, and he said he found out about the crash by watching CNN.

JAMIE MCINTYRE, CNN SENIOR PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: That's right.

Admiral Keating, who is the commander of U.S. Northern Command, who ordered those fighter jets into the sky, said he got the first word of it when he saw it on CNN.

However, we're also told that they were getting the same information downstairs in the secure command center, and were getting ready to scramble fighter jets.

Again, the -- the U.S. Northern Command didn't say how many jets were up or exactly where they went, but they're on a hair-trigger alert after September 11. And they were up in the skies for several hours.

And we were told a short time ago that those patrols have ended, but they wouldn't say exactly when.

ZAHN: OK. So, they wouldn't tell us how many there were up there or exactly where they went. Can you give us any sense of how extensive the blanket was that they cast over the skies?

MCINTYRE: Well, they sent -- they sent a lot of planes up.

They sent them over key cities. And we can tell you from sources that Washington and New York were two of the cities that received those combat air patrols. In fact, I talked to some people around Washington today who heard the planes and said it was eerily like September 11, hearing the planes overhead.

But, again, it was a precaution. They never had any indication that this was a terrorist attack, no other intelligence that would have supported it. So, it was basically a precautionary dispatch of that combat air patrol.

ZAHN: Jamie McIntyre, thanks so much.

So, just how safe are the very crowded skies of New York City? Manhattan, as you all know, is surrounded by major airports, regional airports, a handful of heliports, and even seaplane bases. There are highways in the sky for jumbo jets and swarms of private planes and helicopters.

Deborah Feyerick is here with more on the very difficult job of policing these very dangerous and crowded skies.

I think a lot of people might be surprised to learn tonight that this plane flying at the altitude it was flying at didn't even need to be in contact with air traffic control, and there were a bunch of planes out there today.

DEBORAH FEYERICK, CNN CORRESPONDENT: That's exactly right.

So, tonight, a lot of people are asking just how safe are the skies over Manhattan? Imagine if this had not been an accident, but a deliberate terror attack on a high-value target, like the United Nations, the Brooklyn Bridge, even a packed sports stadium.

A counterterrorism official tells CNN that, unless you have fighter planes over the city 24/7, there's no way to protect people 100 percent of the time. And, even if those fighter planes were in the air, as we saw with today's plane crash, it takes only seconds for a small plane to veer off course, with fatal consequences -- Paula.

ZAHN: This is an eerily familiar sight in New York. How could it be that small plane like this could -- could strike a building? And it's not even clear tonight exactly where it struck this building.

FEYERICK: Well, that's...

ZAHN: We have seen six different accounts of what floors it even hit.

FEYERICK: Well, that's exactly right.

The rules for general aviation are very different than the rules for commercial aviation. General aviation includes corporate jets, private planes, the type of aircraft that take off from airports like Teterboro, where Cory Lidle began his flight.

Pilots and passengers do have to show identification, but, essentially, no one is overseeing who's flying these planes. No one is screening bags. No one is screening cargo. And a number of counterterrorism officials I spoke with worry that someone could load a plane with explosives or even use the plane itself as a flying bomb.

Now, the flip side of that is that general aviation, the smaller planes, can't do the same kind of damage as commercial planes. And, according to one aviation security official, the country faces threats every day, and it would be a stretch to suggest that rules governing general aviation are the problem.

Here's what the former FBI chief had to say.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I'm sure there's going to be a review of what happened in this situation. And does there need to be a further review of what small aircraft can access what airspace around the city? And will they continue to allow some of these corridors to be accessed by this particular type of aircraft?

(END VIDEO CLIP)

FEYERICK: So, are the skies safer today? Well, according to one expert, that's a huge open door -- Paula.

ZAHN: Deborah Feyerick, thanks so much.

Here at CNN, we have a very experienced pilot, who knows all about flying small planes around a very crowded airspace, my colleague, Miles O'Brien, who joins us now.

MILES O'BRIEN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Thank you, Paula.

ZAHN: Thank you for dropping by.

You have been up almost 36 hours by now.

O'BRIEN: It's about bedtime now, but that's OK.

ZAHN: Help us understand what the NTSB is looking into right now as possible causes of this crash.

O'BRIEN: Well, you know, first of all, we have to talk about the airplane.

This airplane does not have a flight data recorder or a cockpit voice recorder, like you would see on a big airliner. So, a lot of that information that you get in an airliner crash, they're not going to have. So, they're going to have to piece together the radar tracking information.

There will be experts who are experts on the airplane, the power plant. Did the engine quit, that kind of scenario? Was there some sort of mechanical problem with the airplane?

And then they will look into -- you know, try to piece together what was going on in that cockpit, as best they can, by using that radar track. Was there another plane that came in close proximity to them? Did it startle them, cause them to try to take evasive action? Did that send them toward the -- toward the building?

Were they in the midst of a steep turn anyway, because they were approaching La Guardia's airspace, and, in the midst of that steep turn, misjudged the turn? It's like flying into a narrow canyon, and you're beneath the rim of the canyon, and you have to be very careful, because not only is it narrow, but this canyon is filled with helicopters and -- and airplanes of all manners and shapes and sizes.

And you're on a radio, announcing where you are, listening for the traffic. You really need the -- the swivel head of an owl in order to fly safely in this part of the world.

ZAHN: So, you have posed the different scenarios that -- that investigators are going to be looking into.

Based on your conversations with pilots that understand how sophisticated a piece of equipment this was, what leaps out at you?

O'BRIEN: Well...

ZAHN: What do you think happened?

O'BRIEN: What leaps out at me is, this -- I have flown in this airspace. It's a very challenging place to fly.

You have very specific requirements on how high you can go. You have got to stay below the restricted airspace, which is above you, make sure you don't get into the space. You have to avoid going over Manhattan, which puts you into trouble, or, for that matter, over New Jersey and Queens. You have to stay over the water, essentially.

So, there -- you have to stay in those tight little corridors. And, on top of that, you have got a lot of other planes and helicopters doing the same thing. So, it is what we would call -- the term in aviation would be task saturation, kind of overwhelmed by the -- the -- the things that were coming at you.

Combine that with a -- a relatively inexperienced pilot. Statistically, the first 350 hours of flying is the most dangerous period of time for pilots. After they have...

ZAHN: Which Cory Lidle had not hit.

O'BRIEN: Right. And after...

(CROSSTALK)

ZAHN: And we don't even know who was flying this plane at this point, right?

O'BRIEN: Well, that's true.

But there's -- there's also an issue. You have a pilot who's the owner of the airplane and an instructor. Who's really the boss of that cockpit? And did they really talk about: What happens if things go wrong? Who's going to really be in charge here?

Was there sort of a breakdown in communication? And, when you're that low and that slow, there's no time to have a conversation about it then. You have to have said in advance: You know, I'm taking over the airplane -- I'm the instructor -- if something bad happens, or vice versa.

But these are all the -- the things -- whenever there's an instructor in the plane, that muddies the waters as to who is in charge.

ZAHN: Sure.

And investigators are saying we might not even know the answers to these questions for another year.

O'BRIEN: It -- it may take -- we may never know, in some respects. But they will -- they're -- they're pretty good at piecing these sorts of things together.

ZAHN: Miles O'Brien, thank you... O'BRIEN: Thank you, Paula.

ZAHN: ... for the tutorial. We appreciate it.

O'BRIEN: You're welcome.

ZAHN: Today's crash was a very important test for New York City's police and fire departments.

Next, in our "Top Story" coverage: Have emergency responders learned the lessons of 9/11? How did they perform today?

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I saw a large it was almost like a mushroom type cloud of fire, and instantly four apartments had burst in flames, fire emanating outside of the building, and I saw a lot of debris falling on to the concrete below it. It was extremely frightening.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

ZAHN: You're looking at some of the pictures that have been sent to us from people who were on the scene at today's deadly plane crash in Manhattan. They were sent to us through our website cnn.com/ireport. Our breaking news coverage continues now with New York City's response to today's plane crash in Manhattan. Emergency crews still on the scene at this hour. But did the lessons learned since 9/11 make any difference at all in their first response? Let's turn to Randi Kaye who was near the scene of the crash on Manhattan's east side tonight. Randi?

RANDI KAYE, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Hi Paula, as you know, we all remember 9/11, we remember New York City being in chaos and emergency responders practically unable to communicate with each other. We know that they were trapped in stairwells, their radios weren't working, they couldn't even warn each other at the World Trade Center that the towers were collapsing. Well after that both New York and the federal government promised to do better next time. Well today in a way, was that next time, and it appears to have worked.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

KAYE (voice-over): The scene is eerily familiar. A plane, a tall building on fire, an emergency call for help.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: It was like a hole in the building with flames shooting out, and you're thinking the poor people that were in that building, I'm thinking terrorists.

KAYE: At 2:42 p.m. just 12 minutes after the plane takes off from New Jersey's Teterboro Airport, New York City police get word of the crash. Immediately officers are dispatched to the scene.

MAYOR MICHAEL BLOOMBERG, NEW YORK CITY: Masses and quick and coordinated I think is a good way to phrase it. Everybody was able to get their equipment through traffic here. Response time was very fast.

KAYE: Within minutes the New York Fire Department dispatches168 officers from 39 different units. They worked side by side on the street with police. Unlike 9/11 radio communication is unnecessary.

BLOOMBERG: The fire department got lines pretty quickly up on the two floors to knock down the fire. Police department had control of the whole area. Together they went to every apartment and knocked on the door and helped anybody out.

KAYE: By 3:00 p.m. about 20 minutes after the crash, the FAA sets up a conference call to disseminate details to reporters. At the same time the White House is looped in. President Bush is briefed about the crash by Homeland Security advisor Fran Townsend. White House officials began gathering information and closely monitoring the incident. There is no change in security measures or alert status. By 3:13 p.m. the Coast Guard begins to move small boats and a cutter to the East River near the building just as a precaution. Five minutes later two units from the FBI's joint terrorism task force get involved in the response. By 3:26 NORAD, North American Aerospace Defense Command is on alert and putting fighter aircraft in the air above a number of U.S. cities in case. Same thing they did after the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

NAVY ADM. TIMOTHY KEATING, COMMANDER OF NORAD: We had fighters on both coasts and on our east and west borders. All within -- well, under 20 minutes, the fighters were airborne.

KAYE: The same city that knows what it feels like when disaster strikes and communication fails now knows what it feels like when things appear to work.

BLOOMBERG: Everything that we planned to handle an emergency like this was carried out to the book, exactly the ways that we had wanted it to go.

(END OF VIDEOTAPE)

KAYE: That's how they wanted it to go in the minutes following the crash, but there are still plenty of questions tonight, Paula, about the minutes leading up to that crash. A lot of people in this city want to know why a plane was able to fly so low, so close to buildings here in New York City without even having to file a flight plan with aviation. So those are questions and concerns that will probably be studied in the days, weeks, and months ahead.

ZAHN: And Randi is it clear if the NTSB is on the scene yet to investigate this crash?

KAYE: We are told there is one person here on the scene for the NTSB. We're told there could be as many as 40 people here in the days ahead trying to figure out exactly what went wrong.

ZAHN: Randi Kaye, thanks so much. We're going to keep watching for developments in the New York City crash investigation. But there are some other top stories to talk about tonight. Coming up next a shocking estimate of how many Iraqis have been killed in the war.

And the army's controversial plan for how long U.S. troops may have to stay.

Plus can anything convince North Korea's leader to give up his quest for nuclear weapons?

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

ZAHN: Among today's other top stories President Bush calls a surprise news conference to talk about two major crisis and an election just around the corner. Crisis number one bloody Iraq. The president said he's willing to change his tactics, but not his goal. Crisis number two, defiant North Korea. The president says diplomacy is the best way to stop Kim Jong Il's drive for nuclear weapons.

We're going in depth on both of these crisis tonight, starting with Iraq. A controversial new report says more than 650,000 Iraqis have been killed since the war started in 2003. That is about 20 times higher than previous estimates, but President Bush says he doesn't believe those numbers.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

BUSH: I don't consider it a credible report. Neither does General Casey and neither do Iraqi officials. I do know that a lot of innocent people have died, and that troubles me and it grieves me.

(END OF VIDEO CLIP)

ZAHN: In another controversy today the army's chief of staff said planning is well under way for the possibility that U.S. troops at their current levels through the year 2010. For that part of the story, let's go back to senior Pentagon correspondent Jamie McIntyre, a very busy man tonight. Let's come back to the source of these numbers. The administration told us they believe 30,000 Iraqis had died. These numbers 20 times that amount in this report. Are these numbers credible?

MCINTYRE: Well, they're somewhat credible. The truth is nobody knows exactly how many Iraqis have died. The U.S. military doesn't keep an accurate count. Independent groups have tried to verify it by keeping track of each individual death, but what this group did was they did a survey, a scientific survey with a random representative sample, and then extrapolated from the death rate what they think the real number might be, and they came up with a pretty big number, 655,000. It's not based on confirmed bodies, but it's based on pretty sound science assuming that sample is really random and representative, and that's probably where the debate is. I think everybody concedes that some of the estimates of 30, 40, 50,000 are probably undercounting the dead, but a lot of people are skeptical of this huge number.

ZAHN: And clearly the president is skeptical of this number basically discounting it completely and yet when really pressed on the issue of how many Iraqis died he never really answered that question, did he?

MCINTYRE: Because they don't know. The U.S. military doesn't know, General Casey said today the number he heard was 50,000, but they don't have a number to come back with.

ZAHN: So how's that playing inside the beltway?

MCINTYRE: Well, you know, I think that people are pointing to this report depending on where their political persuasion is. Anti- war groups are pointing to it as evidence that things are even worse now than they were into the regime of Saddam Hussein, but some of the war's supporters, administration officials are casting doubt. They say the methodology is flawed and that these numbers are not real.

ZAHN: Let's come back to the point we made at the top of your introduction that the army chief of staff is essentially saying that he would like to keep the current troop levels at this level till the year 2010. Did that catch people by surprise?

MCINTYRE: No, not really. What you have to remember here is General Peter Schumacher who is the army chief of staff, he has nothing to do with how many troops are going to be in Iraq, but it's his job to provide the forces. And basically when General Casey, General Abizaid said they're going to keep the current level indefinitely, it's General Schumacher's job to make sure they can do that. He's preparing troop rotation plans for the next four years so that he can continue to rotate troops into Iraq if he has to, but he doesn't get to decide how many troops are there, General Casey, Donald Rumsfeld, President Bush will make that decision.

ZAHN: Jamie McIntyre, thanks so much. At today's news conference President Bush was asked point blank if he's ready to live with a nuclear North Korea. His one word answer, no.

Next in our top story coverage the chances of heading off brand new nuclear arms race.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

ZAHN: Welcome back. Our top story coverage turns now to North Korea and the danger of a new nuclear arms race. North Korea is the newest member of the most dangerous club in the world, and as Aneesh Raman reports, there is a lot of fear tonight that the nuclear weapons club could start growing a lot faster.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

ANEESH RAMAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): She may have seemed happy, but what the North Korean announcer said on Monday stunned the rest of the world. North Korea now claims to be a nuclear armed nation, the latest member of an exclusive club. For nearly half a century only five countries were known to have nuclear weapons. The United States, Russia, Britain, France, and China, what could now be called the old guard all tested nuclear weapons by the early 60's. Then in 1968 amid fears of nuclear Armageddon came the nonproliferation treaty which basically said that the nuclear club was closed. That those with weapons couldn't spread them and those without couldn't try to acquire them. But in the past decade or so membership has almost doubled. Israel has long been thought to have a nuclear arsenal though the government neither confirms nor denies its existence. And in 1998 came the stunning news that India and Pakistan had become nuclear neighbors. Now, adding perhaps North Korea to the list keeping Iran in mind as a candidate member, though the government says its pursuing civilian energy, and the world seems to be inching toward something far worse than a new cold war.

COREY HINDERSTEIN, NUCLEAR THREAT INITIATIVE: We may be facing a nuclear threat not just from new states, but also potentially the spread of materials or weapons to terrorists.

RAMAN: A big part of the problem is that the world is beset by regional conflicts. A year after President Bush called Iraq, Iran, and North Korea the axis of evil, Iraq's Saddam Hussein was deposed by a U.S. led invasion. Some analysts say North Korea and Iran began to wonder whether a nuclear arsenal was a way to avoid a similar fate. And as those countries pursue nuclear programs, they pose new threats to their neighbors. A nuclear North Korea raises fears Asia could be on the brink of an arms race with South Korea and Japan forced to keep up. For now Japan says it has no intention of pursuing nuclear weapons, but the prospect is being discussed.

TRANSLATION OF SHIGERU ISHIBA, FMR. JAPANESE DEFENSE MINISTER: The U.S. is saying to China that it should take action against North Korea because otherwise Japan would have to have a nuclear weapon.

RAMAN: And the Middle East could be in for its own arms race with some Mideast experts suggesting Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and Egypt are contemplating nuclear arms of their own.

(on camera): While some countries have given up their nuclear programs for the sake of international clout, North Korea shows no sign of doing so, which leaves the world struggling to find a solution between outright acceptance and war. Aneesh Raman, CNN, Tokyo.

(END OF VIDEOTAPE)

ZAHN: So will the North Korean test unleash a flood of nuclear weapons across Asia and around the world? Let's ask a top story panel right now, Joe Cirincione, from the Center for American Progress. Gordon Chang, author of "Nuclear Showdown, North Korea Takes on the World." And David Albright, a former UN nuclear weapons inspector and an expert on the North Korean nuclear weapons program. Good to have all three of you with us. So David, what do you think North Koreans are up to? Are they opening this nuclear race wide open?

DAVID ALBRIGHT, FMR. UN NUCLEAR WEAPONS INSPECTOR: They may be. I think they're just trying to defend their own interests which is to kind of keep the U.S. from attacking and then try to get something from their nuclear weapons program. I think they're willing to negotiate an end to the program, but the price is going to be very high, and it's not clear that the U.S. and North Korea could ever sit down together to negotiate something. If they don't, then there's going to be pressure on Japan to do something. I think first respond conventionally, build up its armies, navies, air force, but eventually it may seek nuclear weapons, and I think South Korea will follow.

ZAHN: What do you see happening Gordon?

GORDON CHANG, AUTHOR, "NUCLEAR SHOWDOWN": Well I think that certainly North Korea could push Japan, but especially South Korea and Taiwan. Because the rivalries in North Asia are intense. But the real factor is Iran, because for years the Iranians have been watching the world's reaction to Kim Jong Il's, his increasingly provocative behavior. So if the world's response is less than firm, then you know Iran will see a big green light and then you'll see Algeria, Syria, you know Egypt, Saudi Arabia, they'll go nuclear, some of them have links to terrorists, some of them are hostile, some of them are unstable. So this could be a moment of great consequence for the 21st century.

ZAHN: How do you see, Joe, the Iranians watching this?

JOE CIRINCIONE, CENTER FOR AMERICAN PROGRESS: Oh they're no doubt looking to see if North Korea can get away with this, and if they do, they will be encouraged in their own nuclear program. But look, we've been dealing with the North Koreans for over 20 years and one thing is clear. When we talk to them we can contain and slow down their program. When we threaten them, it accelerates the program. The Clinton approach, the agreed framework had its flaws, but one thing in its favor, it froze the program. They didn't make any bombs during those eight years, they didn't separate any plutonium in those eight years. President Bush thought he could do better. He thought he could overthrow the entire regime. It's backfired. They've increased their supply six fold to an estimated supply of maybe 12 nuclear bombs. Now, they've tested, as David said, it's going to be tougher to get them back to the negotiating table and the price of the deal just went up.

ZAHN: And David, we don't think Iran will have the capability, right, of really being able to use a nuclear weapon for 10 years. Do you fear that in some way they would ever cooperate with the North Koreans and accelerate the pace of that program?

CHANG: Well they may get it sooner than 10 years. I mean the estimate is really around 2010 to 2015. And I hope Iran and North Korea don't cooperate on nuclear. There's always been suspicions that something's going on, and there's certainly been something going on in missiles. So I mean if both countries become increasingly isolated, they may reach out to each other and provide each other with nuclear assistance, and it could become a very big threat.

ZAHN: Do you fear that kind of cooperation?

CHANG: Of course. There are unconfirmed reports that during the July missile test of the North Koreans there were at least 10 Iranian scientists in North Korea watching it. And also there's an unconfirmed report that during Sunday's test there were Iranians in North Korea watching this. You know the North Koreans have sold at least processed uranium to North Koreans. They've been talking to each other about how to defeat the U.N. weapons inspectors, and of course there's the common factor of China which has really supplied a lot of the technology to both of them, either directly or indirectly. So there's a lot going on among these three countries. And North Korea and Iran are just in bed with each other.

ZAHN: Gordon Chang, David Albright, Joe Cirincione, thank you for your expertise tonight. Appreciate it.

Investigators still on the scene of today's high-rise plane crash here in New York. We're going to go there in just a minute for a live update on tonight's top story. We'll be right back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

ZAHN: You're now looking at a very eerie live shot of some of the aftermath of the plane crash here earlier today in New York. A small plane crashed right into this apartment house on Manhattan's Upper East Side. New York Yankee pitcher Cory Lidle was killed along we are told with his flight instructor. Let's go to Alan Chernoff, one of our own who happened to be on the scene within 25 minutes of the crash. And you saw how quickly the rescue effort came together. Share with us some of your observations.

CHERNOFF: That's exactly right, Paula. I mean immediately upon impact there was chaos at the scene. The apartments that were hit burst into flames, of course, but very quickly the New York Fire Department made its way up there, was able to put the fire out. They pretty much had it all out within about 30, 40 minutes. When I arrived on the scene 25 minutes after impact you could just see smoke coming out of the apartments, but no flames, and no people were being brought to the hospital just a couple blocks away. By the end, of course, we did learn that there were two deaths. The pitcher Cory Lidle, the pilot, and his instructor in the plane, and five minor injuries among civilians, and that really is pretty incredible considering that this could have been a far, far greater tragedy. Paula?

ZAHN: Now, unfortunately, Alan, there was a pretty good chunk of time when all of us were watching this unfold on live TV and it reminded us so much of many of the scenes we saw on 9/11. How long did it take before the federal government was able to rule out completely the possibility of terrorism?

CHERNOFF: Well of course for the first few minutes every one here and even in the government, people were wondering could this be another 9/11 style attack, perhaps on a smaller scale. But after a number of minutes and I can't give you a precise number, but after a number of minutes it became pretty clear that this was not a terror attack. A residential apartment building relatively limited in scope and things were well under control. Paula?

ZAHN: Alan Chernoff, thanks so much for the update. That wraps it up for all of us here tonight. Thanks so much for spending some time with us tonight. We'll be back same time same place tomorrow night. Until then, have a good night. "LARRY KING LIVE" starts right now.

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