A New York City official tells CBS News that there are two fatalities in the apartment building and two fatalities in the plane.
The FBI and the Homeland Security Department said there was no evidence it was a terrorist attack. "The initial indication is that there is a terrible accident," Homeland Security spokesman Russ Knocke said. Nevertheless, fighter jets were sent aloft over U.S. cities as a precaution, the Pentagon said.
A federal official tells CBS News that fighter jets have been scrambled to protect New York and Boston airspace.
The aircraft is a fixed-wing aircraft, not a helicopter, as the NYPD initially reported, FAA spokesperson Diane Spitaliere said. The time recorded for the crash was 2:45 p.m. The NYPD was first to respond to the crash.
The plane was registered to New York Yankees pitcher Cory Lidle, non-FAA sources tell CBS News. The plane, reportedly a Cirrus SR20, a four-seat aircraft took off from Teterboro, N.J. at 2:30 p.m.
The plane hit the 20th floor of the Belaire — a tower overlooking the East River, about five miles from the World Trade Center — on a hazy, cloudy afternoon with a loud bang, touching off a raging fire that cast a pillar of black smoke over the city and sent flames shooting from four windows on two adjoining floors.
Firefighters shot water streams at the flames from the floors below and put the blaze out in less than an hour.
The aircraft was not required to be in contact with air traffic control because it was flying under VFR (visual flight rules), reports CBS News.
The FAA has put a TFR (temporary flight restriction) in place, extending up to 1,500 feet in a one-mile radius around the crash. There have been no airport closures in the area as a result, Spitaliere said.
Young May Cha, a 23-year-old Cornell University medical student, said she was walking back from the grocery store down 72nd Street when she saw an object out of the corner of her eye.
"I just saw something come across the sky and crash into that building," she said. Cha said there appeared to be smoke coming from behind the aircraft, and "it looked like it was flying erraticaly for the short time that I saw it."
"The explosion was very small. I was not threatened for my life," she added.
Richard Drutman, a professional photographer who lives on the 11th floor, said he was talking on the telephone when he felt the building shake.
"There was a huge explosion. I looked out my window, and saw what appeared to be pieces of wings, on fire, falling from the sky," Drutman said. He and his girlfriend quickly evacuated the building.
The Federal Aviation Administration said it was too early to determine what might have caused the crash. There was no immediate word on where the plane came from or where it was headed.
"Fighters are airborne over numerous U.S. cities and while every indication is that this is an accident we see this as a prudent measure at this time," said Sgt. Claudette Hutchinson, a spokeswoman for the North American Aerospace Defense Command in Colorado Springs, Colo.
However, all three New York City-area airports continued to operate normally, FAA spokesman Jim Peters said. In Washington, White House spokesman Tony Fratto said neither President Bush nor Vice President Dick Cheney was moved to secure locations.
And Homeland Security's Knocke said: "There is no specific or credible intelligence suggesting a threat to the homeland at this time."
The crash struck fear in a city devastated by the attacks of Sept. 11 five years ago. Sirens echoed across the neighborhood as emergency workers and ambulances rushed in with stretchers. Broken glass and debris were strewn around the neighborhood.
"There's a sense of helplessness," said Sandy Teller, watching from his apartment a block away. "Cots and gurneys, waiting. It's a mess."
The tower was built in the late 1980s and is situated near Sotheby's auction house. It has 183 apartments, many of which sell for more than $1 million.
Several lower floors are occupied by doctors and administrative offices, as well as guest facilities for family members of patients at the Hospital for Special Surgery, hospital spokeswoman Phyllis Fisher said.
No patients were in the high-rise building and operations at the hospital a block away were not affected, Fisher said.