JFK travelers in shock, grief after crash

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Air travelers bound for the Dominican Republic Monday breathed a sign of relief that they had chosen the 12:30 p.m. flight and not the doomed American Airlines Flight 587 at 8 a.m.

“I was on that plane, but I changed it because I didn’t want the early flight,” Allen Cuesta said of the early-morning American Airlines flight, which crashed into the Rockaway Peninsula at 9:17 a.m.

Cuesta, a resident of Washington Heights in Manhattan, had planned to fly with his aunt to the Dominican Republic Monday, but after Flight 587 crashed, he said he did not feel like flying.

American Airlines said many of the 246 passengers on the flight were Dominican-born. Nine crew members died in the crash.

Even if Cuesta had wanted to fly, John F. Kennedy International Airport closed Monday morning after Flight 587 went down. It opened to arriving flights at 1:30 p.m., the Port Authority said, but flights did not resume taking off from JFK until 6:30 p.m.

Meanwhile, bridges and tunnels into Manhattan were closed in the morning, so Cuesta was temporarily stranded in Queens. Despite the inconvenience, Cuesta said he thanked God that he was safe, adding: “I am born again.”

Rosclio Polanco of Upper Manhattan was grateful to still have his sister and cousin with him after they failed to get tickets on Flight 587, settling instead for the 12:30 p.m. flight.

“My sister was trying to go on that flight,” Planco said of Flight 587. “They are still shook up — not just them — me, too.”

His sister, Mercedes Polanco, was visibly upset although she could not express her feelings in English.

Rosclio Polanco criticized the airport security, saying he was given the chance to pass through the security check in order help his sister with her bags, even though he was not a ticketed passenger.

More than one security breach at the airport has resulted in the temporarily shutdown of segments of Kennedy since Sept. 11.

Last Thursday, the JetBlue section of Terminal 6 closed down for about an hour after Federal Aviation Administration officials noticed security screeners were not using hand-held metal detectors.

In Washington, the House of Representatives and the Senate are at odds over a federal aviation safety bill and trying to work out a compromise. The Senate approved a bill to make security screeners federal employees, but the House has not supported that element of the security bill.

After the crash Monday morning, some family members of passengers who were on Flight 587 returned to the point where they had recently dropped them off: Terminal 8, the American Airlines international departures terminal.

One man was sobbing so profusely he nearly collapsed on an escalator, but he was supported by several American Airlines employees. Grief-stricken family members were shuttled to the nearby Ramada Plaza Hotel, where they were offered grief counseling and other services.

Meanwhile, nearly two hours after the plane crash, some passengers hoping to take the 12:30 flight to Santo Domingo remained in the terminal. Many appeared confused about the status of their flight and questioned Spanish-speaking American Airlines personnel.

The Rivera family of Providence, R.I. was camped out in the Au Bon Pain restaurant, trying to pass the time. They had arrived at the airport at 7 a.m. after getting a ride from friends.

While waiting for their flight, Hector and Marily Rivera were taking a nap with their three children on a booth in the sandwich shop. When informed of the plane crash, they used their oldest son, Miguel, as an English translator to ask if their flight had been canceled.

International flights resumed later that day and by Tuesday, the airport operations had returned to 70 percent of capacity, said Port Authority spokesman Alan Hicks.

Reach reporter Betsy Scheinbart by e-mail at or call 229-0300, Ext. 138.

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