Monday, November 12, 2001

NEW YORK A jetliner en route to the Dominican Republic broke apart minutes after takeoff and crashed in flames in a waterfront neighborhood today, destroying houses and sowing initial fears of a new terrorist atrocity. There were no survivors among the 255 people aboard; six others were reported missing on the ground.

“It’s looking like it’s not a terrorist attack,” said a senior Bush administration official who spoke on condition of anonymity. If there was an explosion on the plane and many bystanders heard one it was probably caused by a catastrophic mechanical failure, investigators said.

Authorities said one of the two black boxes on board the 13-year-old Airbus A300 had been found and would be examined for clues.

American Airlines Flight 587 left Kennedy Airport at 9:14 a.m., 74 minutes late, lifting off into a clear blue sky. It went down three minutes later in the Rockaway Beach section of Queens a middle-class neighborhood, 15 miles from Manhattan, that had lost scores of its people, firefighters and financial workers among them, in the World Trade Center catastrophe just two months ago.

“I just thought, `Oh, no, not again,”’ said Milena Owens, who was putting up Thanksgiving decorations when she heard an explosion.

Gov. George Pataki said the pilot had dumped fuel in Jamaica Bay before the plane went down indicating the crew knew the jet was in danger.

Saud Aziz, 38, said he was raking leaves in front of his home when he looked up, spotted the plane and saw a large chunk of a wing fall off. At that point, he said, the aircraft went into a spiraling dive and set the neighborhood on fire.

“We could feel the heat. The flames were intense,” he said. “Even though it was burning, it was weird, because it was very quiet.”

Other witnesses reported hearing an explosion and seeing an engine and other debris falling off the twin-engine jet as it came down. An engine was found intact in a parking lot at a Texaco station, missing the gas pumps by no more than 6 feet; neighbors ran to the scene with garden hoses to put out the fire.

Part of a wing appeared to be in Jamaica Bay, just offshore, Mayor Rudolph Giuliani said.

“I don’t believe there are any survivors at this point,” Mr. Giuliani said. As of midafternoon, 161 bodies had been recovered, he said.

Six people were reported missing on the ground, the mayor said.

Roberto Valentin, a Dominican ambassador at large, spoke through tears when he said he believed 90 percent of the passengers were Dominican; New York has more Dominicans than any other state, with 455,000 in New York City alone.

Relatives of passengers crowded Santo Domingo’s airport, sobbing and grasping each other after hearing about the crash.

“Oh my God!” said Miriam Fajardo, crying after being told that her sister and three nephews were aboard. “I hadn’t seen them in eight years. Now they’re gone.”

The rectory of St. Francis de Sales, one block from the crash site, was used as an emergency command center. Its pastor, Monsignor Martin Geraghty, was called away to bless bodies.

Firefighter Joe O’Brien accompanied the priest. The monsignor blessed about 20 bodies, which were being laid out on the street right in front of the crash site, Mr. O’Brien said.

“Right now they’re just recovering bodies. The FBI is looking for evidence,” he said. “And the priests are down there consoling firemen.”

Thirty-five people were treated for injuries at the hospital mostly rescue workers, firefighters and police. All were hurt not in the crash but in the aftermath, with most of them suffering smoke inhalation.

Four houses were destroyed, four were seriously damaged, and as many as a dozen others sustained lesser damage, the mayor said. Smoke poured from the neighborhood and could be seen from miles away.

A city that had already suffered a catastrophe in lower Manhattan and anthrax scares reacted immediately by calling a high alert. Fighter planes patrolled the skies over New York; bridges, tunnels and all three major airports were closed for a time; the Empire State Building was evacuated.

In Washington, President Bush met with advisers, seeking details of the crash. A U.S. official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said intelligence agencies, the FBI and the Federal Aviation Administration were reviewing recent intelligence for signs that terrorism was involved.

But White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said there were no “unusual communications” from the cockpit. And a senior administration official said that no threats against airplanes had been received.

The National Transportation Safety Board was designated the lead agency in the investigation, signaling that authorities have no information other than that a mechanical malfunction and not a terrorist attack brought down the plane.

A law enforcement source at the scene told The Associated Press that the likelihood of a mechanical problem stemmed from the fact that flames were seen shooting out of the left engine and that witnesses reported the plane had difficulty climbing and was banking to the left.

Jet engines have been known to break up catastrophically, throwing shrapnel into a plane. In 1989, for example, United Airlines DC-10 crashed in Sioux City, Iowa, killing 112, after the metal hub that holds the engine’s fan blades shattered and ruptured the jet’s hydraulic lines.

Jennifer Rivara said she was looking out a window from her home about five blocks from Monday’s crash. “I saw pieces falling out of the sky,” she said. “And then I looked over to my left and I saw this huge fireball, and the next thing I know, I hear this big rumbling sound. I ran to the door and all I saw was big black smoke.”

The plane was lying on top of about 12 homes, said Ed Williams, community liaison for Rep. Gregory Meeks.

Mr. Giuliani said his first thought upon hearing about the crash was “`Oh, my God.’ I just passed the church in which I’ve been to, I think, 10 funerals here. Rockaway was particularly hard hit” in the Trade Center disaster, he said.

The mayor went to an airport hotel where 600 family members of those on board the plane had assembled; he led them in a moment of silent prayer.

“This is a horrible, horrible day,” the governor told them.

The Trade Center was destroyed by two Boeing 767s hijacked out of Boston’s Logan Airport. One of the planes was operated by American, the other by United.

Jackie Weiss, 50, a secretary at Rockaway High School, said: “I’m really devastated. My own son was telling me, when I was upset by the World Trade Center, `But you didn’t lose any family members.’ But seeing something like this … I feel the world is coming to an end.”

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