Tuesday, November 13, 2001

NEW YORK Karen DeMatteis was reading the paper in her mother’s kitchen when she heard a “very low and very loud” noise she assumed was the supersonic roar of the Concorde.
“So I went to the window. I saw the plane drop down from the sky nose down,” said Mrs. DeMatteis. “The belly of the plane faced me. It was very quiet as it was falling.”
Mrs. DeMatteis immediately rushed to the street but was unable to approach the crash site one block from her mother’s house on 129th Street.
“It was pitch black across the street with flames shooting out. I went to the corner and couldn’t go any further,” she said.
The beachfront Rockaway neighborhood of Queens was plunged into chaos when the jet carrying 260 persons crashed shortly after taking off for the Dominican Republic from nearby John F. Kennedy International Airport. Some residents spilled into the streets with fire extinguishers to battle the flames, and others grabbed garden hoses.
Janet Barasso ran blindly through thick, black smoke with her two sons, fearing the worst.
“I thought we were being bombed, because I didn’t see the plane,” said Mrs. Barasso, weeping and wearing a surgical mask after she and her sons, ages 10 and 16, reached safety.
Dolores Ravanno said she saw construction workers screaming as they ran down the street to help. Other people hugged in the street.
“The black smoke just rushed down the block and all over,” said Eileen Dolan, who was walking her dog when the jet hit. “I panicked” and she ran home to get her children.
Hundreds of police, fire and emergency personnel sealed off the crash site, doused the fires and began extracting tangled bodies from the burned wreckage that destroyed several residences.
Firefighter John Duffy, 35, who drove in his own car from Manhattan to help the rescue effort, said he had been “cutting the victims from their seat belts.”
“It was about as horrific as it gets,” he said. “In the street there were whole bodies. And in the body of the plane people were still in their seats. One man was still holding a baby girl.”
Monsignor Martin Geraghty walked up and down the street, blessing more than a dozen bodies that had been pulled from the wreckage, said Firefighter Joe O’Brien.
There were no known survivors. Authorities also said at least six people on the ground were missing, providing fresh grief for a New York neighborhood that lost dozens of its own in the September 11 attack on the World Trade Center, 15 miles away.
Said Gina Ramos, who lives two houses away from the crash: “After September 11, you don’t know what to think. I thought it was bombs.”
Two neighborhood schools empty because of the Veterans Day observance were turned into triage centers, and Beach Street became a morgue.
A couple miles away, family members of the victims began to gather at a six-story Ramada Plaza Hotel, known locally as “Heartbreak Hotel.” It’s the fourth time in five years the nondescript hotel at the edge of Kennedy Airport has housed grieving families after a commercial air disaster.
In July 1996, hundreds of relatives converged on it after Paris-bound TWA Flight 800 blew up off Long Island, killing all 230 aboard. Some stayed for weeks, awaiting identification of their kin.
Within minutes of the crash, the Rev. Ricardo Fajardo began fielding calls from desperate families from Santa Domingo wanting to know if their relatives were safe.
“What can you do? What can you say?” asked Mr. Fajardo, whose northern Manhattan church caters to thousands of families from the Dominican Republic. “You just try to be there.”
Mr. Fajardo was soon speeding to the two-bedroom apartment of Roberto Despradel on Wadsworth Avenue. There, surrounded by weeping relatives and neighbors, the 42-year-old priest who came to New York from the Dominican Republic 12 years ago, offered condolences and prayed a rosary in Spanish.
Mr. Despradel, 41, and his two sons, Lorenzo, 4, and Roberto, 1, were on board American Airlines Flight 587. They were heading to Santa Domingo for a weeklong vacation. The father, who worked as a security guard at a nightclub in suburban White Plains, planned to introduce his sons to their grandparents for the first time.
His wife, Ilsa Beauchamps, stayed behind to take care of their daughter, 6-year-old Gabriela. Friends say the only reason she didn’t join them was that she didn’t want Gabriela to miss school.
So she dressed her boys in brand new blue jeans and white T-shirts, drove her family to the airport and kissed them goodbye. The mother learned about the crash only after returning to the apartment and getting a phone call from relatives.
Mrs. Beauchamps was so distraught that relatives called an ambulance to take her to the hospital. Later, she sat on her bed, weeping over photographs of her children.
For Mrs. DeMatteis and others in the Rockaway community, which lies directly under the airport’s flight path, “we all thought this could happen one day we thought about this all our lives.
“This is like my horrible nightmare come true. I couldn’t believe my eyes.”
This article was based in part on wire service reports.

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