Families gather to mourn Rockaway crash victims

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As investigators struggled to find out what brought down American Airlines Flight 587 in Belle Harbor, a memorial service was held in the Rockaways to remember all of the people who lost their lives in the crash.

Meanwhile, politicians and community members have said the loss of life and property damage in their community could have been prevented if the plane’s flight pattern had been over Jamaica Bay.

More than 4,000 people gathered at the Jacob Riis Park in the Rockaways Sunday to remember the 260 passengers and crew who died in the Nov. 12 crash of Flight 587, which took off from Kennedy Airport en route to the Dominican Republic. The majority of those at the memorial came from Belle Harbor, where five people on the ground were killed, and Washington Heights in Manhattan, home of the city’s largest Dominican community where many of the travelers on the plane lived.

Members of the Belle Harbor community, which had already lost many firefighters in the Sept. 11 attacks on the World Trade Center, have said the closeness of the community, has helped them deal with the two disasters. Many residents of Belle Harbor have lived their entire lives in the middle-class neighborhood.

“Since Sept. 11 there has been a tremendous amount of grief and suffering, but there is tremendous faith and support in this community,” said Rev. Louis DeGaetano, of St. Francis DeSales Roman Catholic Church in Belle Harbor after delivering a sermon at a regular church service Sunday. “I think we all realize that no one is going through this alone. There are a lot of open arms and hugs.”

A number of funerals for victims of the World Trade Center have been held at St. Francis DeSales.

“There is the sense that we grieve together and support each other,” he said. “It creates a solid base to deal with tough situations.”

In his sermon, DeGaetano spoke about how Jesus told people during times of tragedy they have to go on with their lives and live in the here and now. He said people have to reach out to others in the community even if it is a small gesture like a hug or smile.

The National Transportation Safety Board, which is investigating the crash, has focused on a structural problem in the plane’s tail, which was ripped off from the plane as it encountered wake turbulence from a far larger Japan Airlines 747 jumbo jet. Investigators in Belle Harbor and in Washington were still trying to determine the exact cause.

U.S. Rep. Anthony Weiner (D-Forest Hills) said Friday he plans to introduce legislation that would require flights taking off from JFK to follow a route over water instead of over the Rockaway Peninsula.

“Long before the horrible accident of Flight 587, residents of the Rockaways had dishes rattling from noisy flights at JFK,” he said.

“There is no good reason why an airport built on the water should not use water routing when it is available. We have tried cajoling,” Weiner said. “We have tried negotiating. Now we’re going to be legislating a solution to this problem.”

Kathleen Whelan, who lives down the block from St. Francis DeSales, said both events have had powerful effects on many children in the community. She said that when services were held for two members of the Lawler family, she had to take her children away because they told her they could not handle another funeral. The Lawlers were killed in the crash when the plane hit their house on Beach 131st Street.

“I knew those people all of my life,” she said. “When it happened, I thought an earthquake had hit. I heard a boom and then it went black like it was the end of the world. But life goes on and you get through it.”

Pat Geraghty said the strength of the Belle Harbor community comes from its closeness. He said the residents are trying not to have the terrorist attacks and the crash take over their lives.

“I want to see the actual place where the crash happened,” said Elizabeth Victoria of Astoria, whose godparents were killed on Flight 587 and was attending the Sunday morning mass at St. Francis DeSales.

“We want to feel closure ... it helps you to move forward.”

Reach reporter Adam Kramer by e-mail at or call 229-0300, Ext. 157.

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