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NEW YORK » A US Airways jetliner crashed into the frigid Hudson River on Thursday afternoon after a flock of birds apparently disabled both its engines, but rescuers pulled the more than 150 passengers and crew members into boats before the plane sank, authorities say.
Federal Aviation Administration spokeswoman Laura Brown said Flight 1549 had just taken off from LaGuardia Airport en route to Charlotte, N.C., when the crash occurred in the river near 48th Street in midtown Manhattan.
The plane, an Airbus 320, took off at 3:26 p.m. and went down minutes later, Brown said.
"There were eyewitness reports the plane may have flown into a flock of birds," Brown said. She added, "Right now we don't have any indication this was anything other than an accident."
An air traffic controllers union official says the pilot reported a "double bird strike" less than a minute after takeoff and was headed for an emergency landing in New Jersey when he ditched into the Hudson River.
National Air Traffic Controllers Union spokesman Doug Church says the Airbus 320 reported the bird strikes about 30 to 45 seconds after takeoff from New York's LaGuardia Airport and asked to return to the ground. As the controller began to turn the aircraft, the pilot radioed that he saw an airport below him and asked what it was.
Church said the controller in Westbury, N.Y., replied, "That's Teterboro." The pilot asked to land there. The last transmission between the pilot and controller was the controller's order to divert to Teterboro, N.J., for an emergency landing.
The plane was submerged in the Hudson's icy waters up to the windows when rescuers in Coast Guard vessels and ferry boats arrived, opened the door and pulled passengers in yellow life vests from the aircraft, whose fuselage appeared intact. The plane eventually sank in the near-freezing water on one of the coldest days of the year, with the mercury around 20 degrees.
Passenger Jeff Kolodjay of Norwalk, Conn., said he heard an explosion two or three minutes into the flight, looked out the left side of the Airbus 320 and saw one of the engines on fire.
"The captain said, 'Brace for impact because we're going down,'" Kolodjay said. He said passengers put their heads in their laps and started saying prayers. He said the plane hit the water pretty hard, but he was fine.
"It was intense. It was intense. You've got to give it to the pilot. He made a hell of a landing," Kolodjay said.
Witnesses said the plane's pilot appeared to guide the plane down.
Mayor Michael Bloomberg says police divers had to rescue some passengers from underwater.
Bloomberg says he has spoken with the pilot and a passenger who claimed to be the last one off the plane.
The mayor said, "It would appear that the pilot did a masterful job of landing the plane in the river, and then making sure everybody got out."
Bloomberg says most of the rescued were picked up right away and put on police, Coast Guard and ferry boats. He says divers pulled a few passengers from underwater.
Witnesses in buildings along the Hudson described a controlled landing.
"I see a commercial airliner coming down, looking like it's landing right in the water," said Bob Read, who saw it from his office at the television newsmagazine "Inside Edition." "This looked like a controlled descent."
Barbara Sambriski, a researcher at The Associated Press, saw the plane go down from the news organization's high-rise office. "I just thought, 'Why is it so low?' And, splash, it hit the water," she said.
Joe Mazzone, a retired Delta Air Lines pilot, said it is not unusual for birds to strike planes. In fact, he said, when planes get ready to take off, if there are birds in the area, the tower will alert the crew.
"They literally just choke out the engine and it quits," Mazzone said.
Twenty-seven years ago this week, an Air Florida plane bound for Tampa crashed into the Potomac River after hitting a bridge just after takeoff from Washington National Airport. The crash on Jan. 13, 1982, killed 78 people including four people in their cars on the bridge. Five people on the plane survived.
On Dec. 20, a Continental Airlines plane veered off a runway and slid into a snowy field at the Denver airport, injuring 38 people. That was the first major crash of a commercial airliner in the United States since Aug. 27, 2006, when 49 people were killed after a Comair jetliner mistakenly took off from the wrong runway in Lexington, Ky.