- The Washington Times - Tuesday, November 13, 2001

An American Airlines jet crashed into a cluster of homes 87 seconds after takeoff from John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York yesterday morning, killing all 260 persons on board, with at least six persons missing in the firestorm it sparked on the ground.
The right engine on the Airbus A300-600 seemed to self-destruct, and all official indications were that the crash of Flight 587 was an accident, perhaps caused by birds clogging an engine. Nevertheless, federal and New York City officials activated anti-terrorism plans.
President Bush said the National Transportation Safety Board not the FBI is heading the probe, the strongest indication that sabotage or other crime was not suspected.
"It's looking like it's not a terrorist attack," a senior Bush administration official said on the condition of anonymity.
Marion Blakey, chairman of the NTSB, said at a news conference at JFK last night that "all indications are [that] it's an accident."
"There's no evidence to indicate a problem not associated with an aviation accident," said NTSB member George Black. He said that the board members' statements were based on "an initial listen" to the cockpit voice recorder.
At a brief Rose Garden appearance with former South African President Nelson Mandela, Mr. Bush said "it was heartbreaking to pick up the phone and once again express our condolences."
"The New York people have suffered mightily," Mr. Bush said. "They suffer again. But there is no doubt in my mind that New Yorkers are strong, resilient, courageous people."
"I don't believe there are any survivors at this point," New York Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani said in midafternoon.
"We're just being tested one more time, and we're going to pass this test, too," Mr. Giuliani said, adding his first reaction was "Oh, my God," and then odd relief that it seemed "just an airliner crash."
By last night, authorities had recovered 265 bodies, according to Deputy Police Commissioner Joseph Dunne, although he did not indicate how many of those bodies were of people on the ground.
On the plane were 251 passengers and nine crew members. At least six adults, and possibly as many as nine, were missing on the ground near the crash site in the Rockaways area of Queens, Mr. Dunne said.
American Flight 587 lifted off for Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic, at 9:14:34, one hour and 14 minutes late, because of extra security checks implemented in the wake of the September 11 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.
In Santo Domingo, President Hipolito Mejia said about 150 of the plane's passengers were Dominican nationals. His government termed the crash "a legitimate accident."
U.S. officials from the White House to City Hall also were quick to assure travelers, investors, and an anxious general public that the crash did not appear to be a recurrence of the September 11 terrorist attacks.
At the same time, however, they closed New York's bridges and tunnels, shut down five area airports, checked every other flight aloft by radio and radar for difficulties, and dispatched Air Force fighters above major cities nationwide as if responding to a new terrorist attack.
Flights into New York were canceled, including the Washington shuttles. The Empire State Building was evacuated, and the U.N. building locked down, but not evacuated. For a short time, leaders arriving to debate global terrorism were delayed outside, including Secretary of State Colin L. Powell.
Stock prices dipped sharply, with the Dow Jones Industrial Average dropping about 200 points when markets opened as news of the crash spread. Many prices recovered when government officials discouraged initial terrorism speculation, and the index loss for the day was a modest 53.63 points.
Some clues to the crash may come from the cockpit voice recorder, which was recovered and flown last night to Washington for analysis at the NTSB laboratory. Officials were optimistic the flight-data recorder, the other of two so-called "black boxes," will be found soon since both were in the same rear area.
The plane lifted off from Runway 31 Left at 9:14:34 a.m. and disappeared from Federal Aviation Administration radar at 9:16:01 a.m., crashing so close to the airport its death plunge was visible to people waiting for flights.
The FAA heard no distress call from the two-member flight crew, but the pilot of United Airlines Flight 5 from JFK to Los Angeles reported hearing a radio call from Flight 587 saying, "It's a mechanical."
Most of the wreckage sliced into three sections of the middle-class Belle Harbor neighborhood of the Rockaways, not far from the last stop for the subway's A Train, at Rockaway Park Beach.
That neighborhood straddles a strip of land three to four blocks wide, separating Jamaica Bay from the Atlantic Ocean.
As fires burned fiercely near the main wreckage, at Newport and 131st streets, Monsignor Martin Geraghty walked up and down the street, blessing a dozen or so bodies pulled from the wreckage.
While families of the dead were accommodated in an assistance center quickly set up at a Ramada Inn near JFK airport, anguished relatives at Santo Domingo airport fell screaming to the floor in the public terminal.
"We're trying to make it as easy as these horrible circumstances can be," Mr. Giuliani said.
The mayor, who made two visits to families of passengers at the Ramada Inn, refused to report his discussions with the families inside.
"I don't like describing how families react," said Mr. Giuliani, who made more than his share of such visits in the last nine weeks.
When the fireball exploded on a holiday morning, the shadow of terrorism seemed tangible to Rockaways residents still mourning neighbors lost in the World Trade Center attack, including firefighters and police officers.
"After September 11th, you don't know what to think. I thought it was bombs," said Gina Ramos, who lives two houses away from the main crash scene.
"I thought we were being bombed, because I didn't see the plane," said Janet Barasso, who put on a surgical mask to lead her sons, ages 10 and 16, to safety from their home a block from the main crash scene.
The fuselage and main wreckage drilled into the ground at such a vertical angle that only 12 tightly packed houses were damaged by airliner's 147-foot wingspan.
It destroyed four, and seriously damaged four others. Gov. George E. Pataki said telephone lines 10 yards away were undisturbed.
"It's clear the plane did come down very much in a straight [line instead] of gliding across the Rockaways," Mr. Pataki said, referring to plane's 177-foot fuselage.
The engine that departed the plane split into two parts, with the larger piece landing outside the gas station, whose owner doused flames with a fire extinguisher.
The rest fell into a boat on a trailer in the driveway of a three-story Queen Anne style house that was empty at the time.
Mr. Pataki said the crew of Flight 587 a late-model Airbus A300-600 built in France and delivered to American in 1988 dumped much of its heavy fuel load into Jamaica Bay, but later said that was uncertain.
Aviation analysts said the plane's time in flight seemed too short to dump fuel if there was no time to radio, but it would have been a normal step for a pilot who thought he had time to prepare for a forced landing.
Fuel found on the water may have gushed from a rear tank rather than having been dumped.
The heavily loaded Airbus took off toward the northwest and made a U-turn over the bay southward toward the Atlantic Ocean. When it was lost from radar, its transponder showed it at 2,800 feet and climbing.
Had the accident happened 10 seconds later, all the wreckage would have fallen into the Atlantic Ocean.
Witnesses in Rockaways were unanimous that the plane pitched over and plunged straight down after the No. 2 engine, on the plane's right wing, disintegrated and the tail fin tore off, although some witnesses thought the vertical stabilizer was a wing.
The vertical stabilizer was found in Jamaica Bay near Little Egg Marsh. A salvage ship lifted the tail fin from the calm waters just after 4:30 p.m.
"That will affect investigation of the cause. You look to see what came off the plane first," said Peter Goelz, former managing director of the NTSB. "If you've got a stabilizer sitting in the bay a quarter of a mile away, you get a whole new direction in the investigation."
There also were early reports that people on the ground heard an explosion before the plane began coming apart. Investigators said a catastrophic mechanical failure could account for that.
Lack of oil or ingestion of debris by the whirling turbine blades inside the plane's huge General Electric engines are among possible causes for an "uncontained engine failure."
In such cases, pieces of the turbine fan tear loose and exit the engine pod through the walls of the cowling although newer engines have Kevlar protection to keep pieces inside.
Holes were found in the cowling, the sheet-metal tube that encloses the engine. The cowling was found yesterday near a gas station, with the holes apparently being the first indication of uncontained engine failure, leading officials to speculate that birds were sucked into the straining No. 2 jet engine at a critical moment.
Mr. Goelz said birds have long been an issue at Kennedy airport and that the runway used by Flight 587 is adjacent to a wildlife preserve.
"They are supposedly designed to withstand that. Occasionally, they do not," said Mr. Goelz, now a private consultant.
American Airlines spokesman Al Becker said the entire airplane cleared periodic minor maintenance with an "A-check" on Sunday, one day before the crash. Airline CEO Donald Carty said a tire was changed and other "inconsequential" work done then.
A more extensive "B-check" was performed Oct. 3. The plane's last major overhaul was Dec. 9, 1999.
The last major overhaul of the No. 2 engine was 9,788 flight hours ago, Mr. Becker said, adding that such major overhauls typically are done every 10,000 hours of use. The left engine's last major overhaul was 694 flight hours ago.
"Today's news comes at a difficult time for the nation, a difficult time for the airline industry, and a most difficult time for American Airlines," Mr. Carty said.
The bay and marshes complicate the bird situation, which a government expert says has worsened in recent years because the population of protected migratory birds has expanded just as more airliners, now flying with quieter engines that birds don't hear, have taken to the sky.
The worst loss of life in a confirmed bird strike was in 1960 at Boston's Logan Airport, where 62 persons died when an Eastern Airlines Lockheed Electra crashed in the harbor after engines ingested a flock of starlings.
"That's the worst aviation disaster to occur because of birds," said Richard Dolbeer of the U.S. Department of Agriculture and chairman of the official Bird Strike Committee.
The BSC also has three members from the aviation industry plus two each from the FAA, the Agriculture Department and Defense Department.
Recent bird-strike incidents at Kennedy airport include a June 3, 1995, collision on landing when two engines on a Concorde SST were destroyed by Canada geese. The plane was towed to the gate, but damage exceeded $9 million.
In December 1995, a Boeing 747 hit snow geese at a higher altitude, destroying one of its four engines and damaging another, but the plane did not crash. Mr. Dolbeer said JFK's program, headed by wildlife biologist Laura Francoeur, is among the best, but geese and seagulls remain a problem. Miss Francoeur did not return calls yesterday.
"I would say JFK had a very good bird program. They've taken the bird-strike issue very seriously," Mr. Dobeer said in an interview from his office in Sandusky, Ohio.
For a time yesterday, federal officials considered grounding all civil aviation, but settled for closing five airports around New York Kennedy, LaGuardia, Newark, Westchester County and Teterboro.
All except Kennedy were reopened by early afternoon and JFK reopened to incoming flights at 6:30 p.m.


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