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Forty-nine people died when a Continental Express airplane crashed into a house in Clarence Center shortly after 10 p.m. Thursday, setting off a huge fire that could be seen miles away.

The loud, fiery crash, believed to be the nation's deadliest in more than two years, claimed 44 passengers, four crew members and a person on the ground.

Among the crash victims was Beverly Eckert, the widow of Sean Rooney, who was killed in the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. Eckert was traveling to Buffalo for a family celebration of what would have been her husband's 58th birthday.

The weekend was also to include awarding of the Sean Rooney Scholarship at Canisius High School.

A nurse at Erie County Medical Center said the hospital's second shift, told to stay late to treat survivors, was sent home before midnight.

"There were no souls to bring in and treat," she said.

Family members and friends identified two people believed to be on the plane as Ellyce Kausner, a graduate of Clarence High School and Canisius College, and Maddy Loftus, a Buffalo State College graduate who lives in New Jersey.

Friends said Loftus was heading here for a weekend reunion of Buffalo State women hockey players. One friend said she may have been flying with other young women heading here for the same reunion.

"You never think this is going to happen to you," Kausner's aunt, Susan Leckey, also from Clarence, said at Buffalo Niagara International Airport. "It always happens to somebody else, and you see it on TV."

Kausner's family lives roughly a quarter-mile from the crash site.

Niagara Frontier Transportation Authority spokesman C. Douglas Hartmayer said there was little communication between the plane, Flight 3407, and the tower before the crash. Crew members aboard the flight from Newark Airport had reported mechanical problems as they approached Buffalo.

"I was told by the tower the plane simply dropped off the radar screen," Hartmayer said.

Initial reports said the crash site was 6050 Long St., not far from the Clarence Center Fire Hall on Clarence Center Road. Police said one man was in the residence at the time of the crash.

About 12 other nearby homes were evacuated. Several of them sustained fire damage, and witnesses reported that the acrid smell of burning fuel permeated the crash scene.

"We had a significant amount of fuel left in the aircraft, said Dave Bissonette, emergency coordinator for the Town of Clarence. "It was a hazmat situation."

Tony Tatro, 35, who lives on Goodrich Road, was driving east on Clarence Center Road just before the crash.

He saw the plane, just above him, heading north, which seemed to be in the exact opposite direction it should have been heading.

"It was [flying] nose down, hardly above the treetops, and its left wing was tilted slightly down," Tatro said. "I did not see any landing gear. I saw the underbelly of the plane fairly well. There was nothing burning on the plane and no physical damage. Nothing seemed wrong, except it was on a bad path."

The sound of the plane was labored and unusually loud just before the crash.

Tatro didn't see the crash, but he had no trouble hearing it, even with his car windows closed.

What did he think about the chance of there being any survivors?

"No chance," Tatro replied. "It was a bad, bad impact. It was hot, and the explosion was massive. I couldn't see anyone surviving it."

Chris Kausner, of Clarence, whose sister Ellyce was aboard the flight, told The Buffalo News that after he heard about the crash, he called another sister who had gone to pick her up at the airport to see if her plane had landed.

"She said that they told them the plane had landed and was taxiing, but that was not the case," he said.

Kausner said Ellyce was a law student at Florida Coastal University in Jacksonville and was coming home to visit. In Washington, the National Transportation Safety Board announced that it will be sending a team to Buffalo this morning to investigate the crash.

Lorenda Ward will serve as chief investigator. She has investigated several other plane crashes during her tenure at the agency -- including the fall 2007 crash that claimed the life of New York Yankees pitcher Corey Lidle.

Safety Board Commissioner Steven Chealander and public affairs officer Keith Holloway will accompany Ward to Buffalo. While the agency's investigations usually take months to complete, the agency said it would hold a news conference to discuss the accident in the Buffalo area today.

The crash is America's deadliest since a Comair commuter jet crashed in Lexington, Ky., on Aug. 27, 2006. That crash also claimed 49 lives.

David Luce, who lives about 150 yards from the crash scene, on Goodrich Road, said he wasn't surprised to learn that there were so many deaths.

"I can't imagine that anyone survived it," he said. "If you heard that explosion, and you saw how fast the whole area was on fire, it was pretty clear that it was jet fuel burning.

"I would guess that everything disintegrated on impact," he added.

Just before the crash, Luce heard the plane and noticed that it sounded a little funny.

"It sounded quite loud, and then the sound stopped," Luce said. "Then one or two seconds later, there was a thunderous explosion. I thought something hit our house. It shook our whole house."

"There was the initial boom, and then these cannon shots -- these loud secondary explosions, and they went on for about 10 minutes."

Within 5 to 10 seconds, Luce said, he saw flames 40 or 50 feet high.

One or two minutes after the crash, Luce had walked to a spot that gave him a clearer view of the scene.

"The house was already flattened. There was no house, just a pile of rubble and still burning."

Luce said he heard screams following the crash, but he doesn't know whether they came from injured people or from neighbors.

Almost two hours after the crash, Luce said he still saw flames shooting from the crash site, but they were not as high as before.

Buffalo News Staff Photographer Harry Scull Jr., who lives in Clarence, said he heard a fire alarm at 10:20 p.m.

"Thirty seconds later, the phone rang, and I knew it was something big," he said. "It was my neighbor. He said a plane hit a house, look out your window. I'm two miles from there, and it was a ball of fire."

Scull said he went to Long Street to take pictures and found a chaotic scene as firefighters attempted to run hoses to fight the flames.

Scull noted that after dark, he has noticed that incoming flights pass lower overhead.

"It scares you, they come in so low," Scull said. "You can smell the jet fuel burning. I knew it was just a matter of time."

e-mail: News Staff Reporters T.J. Pignataro, Harold McNeil, Sharon Linstedt, and Staff Photographers Harry Scull Jr. and Bill Wippert contributed to this report.