Compiled by Seth Mates
Two months after the World Trade Center attacks, on Nov. 12, 2001, American Airlines Flight 587 — bound for the Dominican Republic and carrying 260 people — nose-dived into the Belle Harbor neighborhood of the Rockaways.
“The plumes of dark, ugly smoke soaring into the air above the Rockaway peninsula certainly evoked terrible memories of the earlier horror of jets slamming into the Manhattan skyline,” read the coverage in Newsday.
What unfolded was yet another morning of horror, amid fears that another act of terrorism had brought death and destruction, devastating Dominican communities across New York City, and striking a blow on a Queens neighborhood that had lost many on 9/11.
On the 20th anniversary of the tragedy, Newsday looks back at the story of Flight 587 through quotes from Newsday’s coverage in the days immediately following the crash.
The morning of Monday, Nov. 12, 2001, dawned crisp and clear. It was Veterans Day, which had taken on extra meaning just weeks after 9/11. President George W. Bush had visited Ground Zero the day before. Thousands on Long Island and in New York City had participated in the Veterans Day parade on Sunday. American troops were advancing on Kabul.
In the Dominican neighborhoods of Washington Heights in Manhattan and Corona, Queens, families and neighbors wished their loved ones a safe flight to Santo Domingo, that Caribbean nation’s capital.
Flight 587 took off from Kennedy Airport at 9:14 a.m. Three minutes later, it was passing over the Rockaways section of Queens.
Susan Locke, publisher of The Wave newspaper in Rockaway Beach: “I heard a plane that didn’t sound right. It was rumbling. I looked out of the window, and I saw the silver front of the plane nose-dive to the ground. Then, plumes of black smoke were everywhere.”
Frances Samon, who lived near the point of impact: “It was so low over my house I could touch it. People at the park were screaming, ‘Oh my God.’ It was nose-diving up and down like the people flying the plane were struggling. It looked like it was coming down onto my house.”
Eileen Dolan, who was headed home after walking her dog on the beach: “Oh God, it was so horrible. There were flames. There were flames coming out of the plane, and then it fell.”
Ed Deviteo of West Islip, who was inside a gas station right next to the crash site: “I was as close to death as I could be without dying … if this had happened two minutes earlier, I wouldn’t be talking to you.”
NTSB member George Black: “[Witnesses] saw the aircraft ‘wobble’ — that was the word they used — they saw pieces come from it, then it went into a steep spiral and into the ground.”
Msgr. Martin Geraghty to his congregation at St. Francis de Sales Church (a church that had already held 12 services for Sept. 11 victims), after hearing the enormous boom outside: “I think we have to end this Mass. I don’t know what that was, but it’s time to go find your loved ones and get safe.”
Kevin Kearney, who was at the Mass: “Your first thought is obviously that it was another terrorist thing. By the time I got home, I looked up, and there were fighter jets in the sky.”
Belle Harbor resident Maureen Hagner: “I am a flight attendant, and this is my worst nightmare, to see a plane coming down sideways. I ran toward it, and everything was black, black, black. I saw it directly out my window going down. I could see it perfectly. It was sideways, and then it went into a nose-dive.”
Milena Owens, who lived two blocks from the crash site: “I heard the explosion and I looked out the window and saw the flames and the smoke and I just thought, ‘oh no, not again.’ “
Emergency vehicles quickly arrive at the scene.
NYPD spokesman Sgt. Richard Kemmler: “Within minutes, we had the area locked down and people were being evacuated.”
Ole Pederson, vice president of public affairs at Jamaica Hospital Medical Center, the closest trauma facility: “Our ambulances at the scene [had] trouble getting close to the plane because the flames [were] so intense.”
Firefighter Brian Davan, a Belle Harbor resident whose father-in-law, First Deputy Fire Commissioner William Feehan, died on Sept. 11: “[My wife called me crying, and] I grabbed my gear and shot back here [from Brooklyn]. I made sure my wife was OK and jogged right over to the scene. We’re physically OK, but I can’t help but think of the enormity of this. I don’t know who could get on a plane after this.”
Patrick Sullivan, a retired police officer and resident of Breezy Point, on the mood of the rescuers heading to the fire: “After the Twin Towers, this was something they could fight.”
Pederson: “The emergency room staff is ready but there’s a level of distress that is going on in the hospital because there’s no patients coming in.”
All 260 people on the plane were killed, along with five people on the ground.
Chief Andy McCracken, the chief uniformed officer of the Emergency Medical Service: “The footprint of the devastation is unbelievable because it’s so small, considering the size of the plane and the area. It could have been so much more devastating. We have a church right next to a full-time school nearby [which was closed that day for Veterans Day].”
Helvio Mendoza Acosta, whose sister, Oneida, was on the flight: “She was very happy [when I saw her on Sunday night, the night before the crash, but] always, always, every year, she was scared to fly.”
Amparo Rodriguez, whose Navy husband, Ruben, was on the plane after surviving the first round of U.S. attacks on Afghanistan: “The danger was over and he was finally coming home. Now, he’ll never know his youngest son.”
Johayra Romero, whose grandmother, Sura Martinez, was on the plane, and had survived triple bypass surgery, diabetes and breast cancer: “She had recovered through everything. She went through the chemo and the hair loss and to die like this …”
Moises Sifren, whose friend, the Rev. Jean-Luc Phanord, was on the plane, and who traveled to New York from the Dominican Republic after the crash: “We will go as soon as they let us have his body. The whole city is waiting. The poor people in the bateyes [sugar plantations], they are waiting. Five or six thousand people are going to be at his funeral, not only from the Dominican Republic, but from Haiti and Florida and Canada, because he was a big man.”
Deborah Wood, whose sister, flight attendant Barbara Giannasca of Point Lookout, was one of two Long Islanders on the flight crew: “We’re all just devastated … you’d find her sketching somewhere, then you’d find her in the garden.”
Fermin Almonte, administrator of Centro Medico Dominicano in Washington Heights: “This has to be the biggest blow. So many people lost. So many of us left to grieve.”
Maura de la Cruz, whose sister Gloria Ventin, 31, was five months pregnant and traveling with her son Christopher Ventin, 4: “It was only the second time she got on a plane. To lose one family member is hard. We lost three.”
Ari Fleischer, White House spokesman: “After Sept. 11, everybody immediately has to presume the worst and evaluate facts to make certain that it’s not [terrorism]. Anything less than that would be irresponsible for the government.”
An aviation expert who did not wish to be identified: “That tail coming off is very puzzling. There are only a handful of ways it can come off. … I don’t think we can rule out terrorism.”
NTSB Chairwoman Marion Blakey: There is “no evidence of impact with an outside object … at this state, we believe all indications are that this is an accident. The communications were normal from the cockpit up until the last few seconds before the crash.”
A senior Bush administration official: “It’s looking like it’s not a terrorist attack.”
Officials review the cockpit voice recorder and hear an “airframe rattling noise” just 107 seconds after the plane takes off.
Bob Ober, a pilot for a major airline: “[The airframe rattling noises are] a concern, depending on the magnitude, the severity and the length of time.”
Flight 587 First Officer Sten Molin, as recorded on the cockpit voice recorder just seven seconds after the airframe rattling noise is heard: “Wake encounter.”
The wake encounter — a form of turbulence created by jets as they fly through the air — is attributed to a Boeing 747 that had taken off just two minutes and 20 seconds before Flight 587, which officials say is more than enough time to avoid a problem.
An air traffic control source: “[The distance] would have been legal, but if conditions were just right, [the wake turbulence] might have remained out there and not dissipated.”
Blakey, the NTSB spokeswoman: “This would be consistent with a wake vortex encounter.”
Thirteen seconds after Molin’s transmission, the cockpit voice recording indicates that the pilots have lost control of the jet. And 17 seconds after that, the cockpit recording ends.
The NTSB determines that in trying to correct Flight 587 amid the wake turbulence, the first officer had put too much pressure on the vertical stabilizer, and it had detached from the plane, also causing the tail to come loose, along with two engines.
From the NTSB report: “The National Transportation Safety Board determines that the probable cause of this accident was the in-flight separation of the vertical stabilizer as a result of the loads beyond ultimate design that were created by the first officer’s unnecessary and excessive rudder pedal inputs. Contributing to these rudder pedal inputs were characteristics of the Airbus A300-600 rudder system design and elements of the American Airlines Advanced Aircraft Maneuvering Program (AAMP).”
It had been a tragic accident, not a terror attack. New regulations and training have since been put into practice to prevent this from happening again.
Bernie Heeran, a resident whose son, Charlie, died in the World Trade Center and was friends with Christopher Lawler, one of the five victims on the ground of Flight 587: “My son’s gone, now Chris is gone. You just think what their plans were. Both of them were going to be successful and good.”
In addition to Charlie Heeran, 58 other victims of the Sept. 11 attacks called the Rockaways home, including many firefighters.
New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani: “The idea that Rockaway was the victim of this, I mean, any place it happened, obviously, is awful. But it had a special significance. I just passed a church in which I had been to, I think, 10 funerals.”
John Knox, a retired firefighter who lives near the crash site: “It’s something I have not yet dealt with. We still have two more months of funerals. The holiday season here will be devastating.”
Frank Raymond, director of emergency medicine at Peninsula Hospital Center on Beach Channel Drive: “People are a lot more emotional than [Sept. 11]. I don’t think anyone thought they’d go through something like this again so soon after 9/11.”
VinnieCarla Agnello, whose husband died on Sept. 11: “This community was just beginning to heal, and now there’s smoke and police [crime scene] tape all over the place and houses on fire. I don’t know if life will ever return to normal. It’s surreal … I’ve met so many widows in the neighborhood from this [Sept. 11 tragedy]. We were getting back to normal, and I was told to tell the kids they’re safe and nothing will happen to then. But they’re not stupid. They can see what’s happening.”
Barbara King, a mother of three who lives in the area: “The children in schools have been hearing bagpipes since Sept. 11. Every child in the Rockaways has been affected by this. They’re very jumpy, because there’s still a lot of planes flying. When anything zooms by, your initial reaction is, ‘Are we under attack?’ “
Bernadeta Burlakowski, who lived across the street from the scene: “Last night, who could sleep. We live across the street from a grave. But today we are reborn.”
Msgr. Geraghty: “We’re trying to be together. I think our people are strong. We’re a close community. Mostly right now we’re trying to hold onto each other and let everyone know that they are not alone … the first language is hugs, holding people. That’s all you’re able to do.”
Additional photos by Alfred G. Ott, Mark Barnett, Debbie Egan-Chin and Getty Images / Shaul Schwarz.