President Bush was in the White House Situation Room discussing the war on terrorism with advisers at 9:25 a.m. yesterday when an aide passed him a note that an airplane had crashed in New York City.
American Airlines Flight 587 took off from John F. Kennedy International Airport at 9:14, but the flight lasted just three minutes air-traffic controllers reported losing contact with it at 9:17. Investigators don’t yet know why the plane broke up, with the tail falling into Jamaica Bay, pieces of the engine falling next to a gas station and the main part of the plane crashing in a residential area in the Rockaway area of Queens, one of New York’s five boroughs. All 260 persons on board and an unknown number on the ground were killed.
In the minutes after the crash, city officials shut down bridges and tunnels into the city and between boroughs. Planes flying out of JFK Airport, Newark International Airport, LaGuardia Airport and the smaller regional airports were grounded, and incoming flights were diverted or returned to their takeoff points.
New York Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani was at City Hall when he got a phone call alerting him to the crash. Within minutes he was on the way to the scene of the crash, where, as in the aftermath of the September 11 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center, he gave a face, a voice and a focus to yesterday’s emergency response efforts.
“We’re just being tested one more time, and we’re going to pass this test, too,” he said.
At the same time the mayor was learning about the crash, Senate Minority Leader Trent Lott, Mississippi Republican, was pressing the button to open the day’s trading on the Nasdaq Stock Market. Officials, expecting a good day on the market based on early indicators, applauded enthusiastically, but moments later their mood changed as they stepped off the staging area and saw a wall of television monitors showing pictures of a smoking explosion.
“People thought it was Afghanistan at first,” said Lott spokesman Ronald Bonjean. “Then somebody said it was New York, and we all did a double take.”
In Washington, word of the crash spread among city officials, though they decided there was no immediate threat. Still, security at airports tightened.
Flight 587, bound for the Dominican Republic, had been scheduled to depart JFK Airport at 8 a.m. and land in Santo Domingo at 12:48 as it turned out, about the time that family members of victims were gathering in Santo Domingo and at JFK, and shortly before the time that emergency workers found the cockpit voice recorder, one of the two “black boxes” that help investigators piece together a flight’s last minutes before a crash.
After an initial period of shock and speculation, government officials began to say first in unattributed remarks, then through regular official channels there was no evidence the crash was a terrorist attack.
Eventually, the television networks began to peel away from special coverage of the crash.
Flights returned to normal at LaGuardia, Newark and the regional airports after 2 p.m., the expiration time for the Federal Aviation Administration’s ban on flights after the crash.
Outgoing flights were still on hold at JFK yesterday afternoon while the investigation into the crash proceeded.
But the grieving and consoling had just begun. In midafternoon Mr. Giuliani and New York Gov. George E. Pataki held a news conference outside of the Ramada Plaza Hotel, where they had just finished meeting with some of the families of victims.
And just after 4 p.m., Mr. Bush appeared with former South African President Nelson Mandela at the White House. Both men offered condolences to the victims’ families.
Dave Boyer contributed to this article, which is based in part on wire service reports.