Feds comb Belle Harbor for clues to fiery jet crash

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Investigators picked through the wreckage Wednesday of American Airlines Flight 587, which nose-dived into Belle Harbor and destroyed six homes in the closely knit Rockaway neighborhood, still reeling from the loss of scores of firefighters in the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

All of the 246 passengers and the nine crew members died on the Airbus A-300 that took off from John F. Kennedy International Airport at 9:17 a.m. Monday just three minutes before crashing.

Several members of the Dominican community in Corona were among the missing on the popular flight bound for Santo Domingo, which served as a shuttle between the Caribbean island and the bustling Dominican sections of New York City.

The majority of the passengers on the flight were of Dominican descent.

Authorities said five residents of Belle Harbor were unaccounted for, including Christopher Lawler, a 24-year-old law student at St. John’s University in Jamaica, and his mother Kathy.

Queens, the rest of the city and the nation immediately went on high alert amid fears the crash of the giant jetliner could have been part of another terrorist strike. Bridges and tunnels were closed, the city’s three airports were shut down.

But federal investigators said it appeared that an accident caused the crash, based on early findings and a preliminary examination of the cockpit flight recorder, which revealed a mysterious rattle.

George Black of the National Transit Safety Bureau said the plane’s flight data recorder was recovered Tuesday and sent to Washington, D.C. to be examined along with the cockpit voice recorder.

The NTSB, which is leading the investigation in the crash scoured the wreckage and continued to interview eye-witnesses in Belle Harbor this week.

There was no mayday signal or any unusual communication from the plane before the crash, which was scheduled to take off at 8 a.m. But the flight did not leave the gate until 8:38 a.m. and after being delayed, it took off at 9:14, just three minutes before it crashed.

As of Tuesday 262 bodies and 181 body parts had been pulled from the crash sight, Mayor Giuliani said.

The main part of the 9:17 a.m. flight bound for Santo Domingo, fell from the sky onto Beach 131st Street. While a part of the plane landed on a Texaco station at Beach 129th Street, a section of the tail landed in Jamaica Bay and an engine crushed a home on Beach 127th Street.

Marion Blakey, chairwoman of the NTSB, said Tuesday night all indications were the crash was an accident and not a terrorist attack as many on the peninsula suspected.

But eyewitness have given conflicting accounts. Some say the plane crashed and then burst into flames, while others said they saw smoke trailing from the engine before it hit.

“I heard a rumbling and looked out of the window to see the plane drop from the sky,” said Karen DeMatteis, who grew up in the Rockaways and was visiting her parents. “It went straight down with the belly of the plane facing towards the ocean. It looked like someone was playing with a toy.”

She said when the plane hit, it exploded, sending a giant plume of black smoke filled with orange flames into the air and she heard a pop, pop, pop as cars on the street exploded. Planes flying overhead are a common occurrence, DeMatteis said, and the homes shake when the Concorde passes, but this was different.

Frank Silecchia said he saw the plane head back over his house on 127th Street and then pitch left because it was missing an engine. He said it then headed straight down with smoke trailing off the plane.

Five residents were unaccounted for in the six homes that were destroyed and another six houses on the block were damaged, officials said.

There were 41 reported injuries on the ground. Firefighters suffering from smoke inhalation and bruises accounted for the majority of those injured, said Dr. Frank Raymond of Peninsula Hospital.

Giuliani, who rushed to the fiery crash scene with Fire Commissioner Thomas Von Essen, said he had attended at least 10 funerals at nearby St. Francis de Sales church for victims of the Sept. 11 attack.

The mayor said it was remarkable that Belle Harbor did not suffer more damage as the main section of the plane landed in a very confined space. He said if the plane had skidded along the ground, it would have caused much more devastation.

Right after the attack, the metropolitan area’s three major airports — JFK, LaGuardia and Newark — were shut down, but later in the day when air safety was assured, the three airports were reopened. President Bush, early in the morning, toyed with the idea of closing down the nation’s air space, but later decided against it.

All of the city’s bridges and tunnels were closed in the hours following the crash, but by early afternoon traffic people were allowed to enter and leave the borough.

Rockaway, which has many residents who are firefighters and police officers, is still recovering from the Sept. 11 attack on the World Trade Center. Community residents said anywhere between 80 and 100 of their neighbors had lost their lives at the Twin Towers.

State Sen. Malcolm Smith (D-Rockaway), who arrived at the scene 20 minutes after the crash, described two elderly couples who lived in two of the six demolished houses — the Concannons and Lawlers — as “rocks of the community” who were very active in Belle Harbor.

“It was a horrific scene,” he said. “All of the houses were burned to the ground and there were body and plane parts all over.”

The six homes on Beach 131st were consumed in flames after the plane hit. The hundreds of police, fire and rescue officers working to put out the fires and the surrounding area were engulfed in a cloud of gray smoke as if a heavy fog had rolled off the Atlantic Ocean.

The area was saved from even more devastation when an engine from the plane that hit the Texaco Station at Beach 129th Street landed between the pumps and the main building. If the station had exploded, the damage would have been far more extensive.

“We don’t deserve this,” DeMatteis said. “Rockaway was hit hard by the Trade Center attack. We lost about 80 people.”

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

Updated 7:28 pm, October 10, 2011
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