NEW YORK (AFP) — A US Airways plane carrying 155 people crashed into New York's Hudson River, but all aboard made a miraculous escape as the freezing waters rose around them, US officials said.
The Airbus with 150 passengers and five crew lost power in both engines almost simultaneously, a highly rare event, just minutes after take-off from LaGuardia Airport outside New York City.
Initial reports from the Federal Aviation Authority (FAA) suggested the plane's engines stopped after a collision with birds, but this was not immediately confirmed. Terrorism was ruled out.
The pilot was praised for his heroism in bringing the Airbus down safely in the river just off Manhattan.
Incredibly, there were no fatalities.
New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg said he was "not aware of any serious injuries."
One crew member suffered a cut to her leg and many passengers sought treatment for exposure to icy temperatures, CNN reported.
In the seconds after the crash, dozens of frantic passengers clustered on the wings of the plane hoping to be picked up by boats before the aircraft sank.
Photographs showed people lined up along the length of one wing, the river lapping over their feet as they scrambled into the arms of their rescuers.
The pilot was lauded for managing to glide US Airways flight 1549 into the river after both engines failed three minutes after take-off en route to Charlotte, North Carolina.
President George W. Bush said in a statement he was "inspired by the skill and heroism of the flight crew, as well as the dedication and selflessness of the emergency responders."
Investigators arrived in New York late Thursday to inspect the wreckage.
Early indications pointed to a disastrous collision between at least one engine and birds, which are widespread in the flightpaths outside New York.
"There were reports of a large flock of birds in the area," FAA spokeswoman Laura Brown said. "But we don't have any indication that this was the cause."
Bloomberg said there was "absolutely no indication whatsoever" of a terrorist attack.
"People are about as sure as they can be without pulling the plane out of the water that this was nothing but an accident."
Passenger Alberto Panero told CNN said he heard a loud bang just after take-off.
"The plane shook a bit and immediately, you could smell smoke or fire and immediately, the plane basically just started turning in another direction," he said.
"All of a sudden, the captain came on and said, 'Brace for impact' and that's when we knew we were going down, into the water. And we just hit and somehow the plane, you know, stayed afloat and we were all able to get on the raft and -- it's just incredible right now that everybody's still alive."
Another factor, in addition to the pilot's skill, in saving so many lives was the quick action of rescuers, including private ferry crews on the Hudson.
Police helicopters hovered over the stricken plane as four large ferries and several smaller boats gathered in the waters nearby. The Coast Guard dropped life jackets into the water for survivors amid frigid temperatures.
Fire rescue and EMS crews assisted survivors, with one passenger saying there had been elderly people as well as children on board the aircraft.
As night began to fall over the scene, ferry boats cranked up their lights as they sought to guide the empty aircraft towards the shore to aid the investigation.
On a freezing winter's day, temperatures were estimated at 20 degrees Fahrenheit (six below Celsius) outside and 40 degrees Fahrenheit (four degrees Celsius) in the water, making it a race against time to get everyone off the plane before they suffered from hypothermia.
Panero told CNN by phone the rescue "boats managed to get right up to the door and you could just literally, in effect, jump off into a boat, never had to go into the water."
A fire department spokesman told AFP that at least 106 firefighters had been involved in the rescue and had rushed to the scene within minutes of being alerted to the crash at 15:31 (2031 GMT).
"I saw what looked to be a small commercial plane flying south making a gradual landing," witness Ben Vonklemperer told CNN.
"I saw it hit the water. It made a big splash," he said. "I did see it hit the water at a very gradual angle. It appeared not to have landing gear engaged," he said.
The Hudson River crash comes 27 years and two days after an Air Florida Boeing 737-222 airliner crashed into the 14th Street bridge in Washington and plunged into the Potomac River immediately after takeoff in a snow storm on January 13, 1982.
The accident killed 78 people, including four motorists on the bridge.
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