NEW YORK (AP) — A jetliner en route to the Dominican Republic broke apart minutes after takeoff and crashed in a waterfront neighborhood Monday, engulfing homes in flames and sowing initial fears of a new terrorist atrocity. All 260 people aboard were killed, and at least six others were reported missing on the ground.
“All information we have currently is that this is an accident,” said Marion Blakey, chairwoman of the National Transportation Safety Board. If there was an explosion on the plane — and many witnesses heard one — it was probably caused by a catastrophic mechanical failure, investigators said.
American Airlines Flight 587, a European-made Airbus A300, left Kennedy Airport at 9:14 a.m., 74 minutes late because of security checks put in place after the World Trade Center attack, according to American Airlines chairman Don Carty. It took off into a clear blue sky.
Three minutes later, it spiraled nose-first into the Rockaway Beach section of Queens — a middle-class neighborhood, 15 miles from Manhattan, that had lost scores of its people, including firefighters and financial workers, in the Trade Center catastrophe just two months ago.
Furious orange flames towered above the treetops, and a plume of thick, black smoke could be seen miles away.
Authorities found the flight data recorder, one of the two “black boxes” from the twin-engine jet, and said it would be examined for clues.
Witnesses reported hearing an explosion and seeing an engine, a large chunk of a wing and other debris falling off the plane as it came down.
“I saw pieces falling out of the sky,” said Jennifer Rivara, who watched through a window at her home about five blocks away. “And then I looked over to my left and I saw this huge fireball, and the next thing I know, I hear this big rumbling sound. I ran to the door and all I saw was big black smoke.”
An engine was found intact in a parking lot at a Texaco station, where it had missed the gas pumps by no more than 6 feet; neighbors ran to the scene with garden hoses to put out the fire. The vertical stabilizer — the tail fin — was pulled from Jamaica Bay, just offshore, Mayor Rudolph Giuliani said.
American Airlines said there were 251 passengers — including five infants sitting on their parents’ laps — and nine crew members.
“I don’t believe there are any survivors at this point,” Giuliani said. By early evening, 225 bodies had been recovered, he said. Klieg lights — the kind of lights used at ground zero at the Trade Center — were brought in so recovery workers could work into the night.
At least six and perhaps as many as eight people, all adults, were reported missing on the ground, the mayor said. Six houses were mostly destroyed, and six others sustained serious damage, Giuliani said.
“Anyone who was in those four houses that were directly hit by that fuselage, where that severe fire was, I don’t think they’re going to be alive,” said Fire Commissioner Thomas Von Essen. Authorities were not certain that anyone was in those buildings.
Roberto Valentin, a Dominican ambassador at large, spoke through tears when he said he believed 90 percent of the passengers were Dominican. New York City has 455,000 Dominicans.
Relatives of passengers crowded Santo Domingo’s airport, sobbing and grasping each other after hearing about the crash.
“Oh my God!” said Miriam Fajardo, crying after being told that her sister and three nephews were aboard. “I hadn’t seen them in eight years. Now they’re gone.”
The rectory of St. Francis de Sales, one block from the crash site, was used as an emergency command center. Its pastor, Monsignor Martin Geraghty, was called away to bless bodies.
Firefighter Joe O’Brien accompanied the priest. The monsignor blessed about 20 bodies, which were being laid out on the street right in front of the crash site, O’Brien said.
“Right now they’re just recovering bodies. The FBI is looking for evidence,” he said. “And the priests are down there consoling firemen.”
Forty-one people were treated for injuries at the hospital — mostly rescue workers, firefighters and police. All were hurt not in the crash but in the aftermath, with most of them suffering smoke inhalation.
The city, which was already on high alert because of the Trade Center catastrophe in lower Manhattan, reacted immediately. Fighter jets patrolled the skies; bridges, tunnels and all three major airports were closed for a time; the Empire State Building was evacuated.
“People should remain calm,” Giuliani said. “We’re just being tested one more time, and we’re going to pass this test, too.”
In Washington, President Bush met with advisers, seeking details of the crash. A U.S. official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said intelligence agencies, the FBI and the Federal Aviation Administration were reviewing recent intelligence for signs that terrorism was involved.
But White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said there were no “unusual communications” from the cockpit. And a senior administration official said that no threats against airplanes had been received.
Gov. George Pataki at first said the pilot dumped fuel in Jamaica Bay before the plane went down — indicating the crew knew the jet was in trouble. But he later said there were conflicting reports as to whether this happened.
The NTSB was designated the lead agency in the investigation, signaling that authorities have no information other than that a mechanical malfunction — and not a terrorist attack — brought down the plane.
A law enforcement source at the scene told The Associated Press that the likelihood of a mechanical problem stemmed from the fact that flames were seen shooting out of the left engine and that witnesses reported the plane had difficulty climbing and was banking to the left.
The Airbus had two CF6-80C2 engines made by General Electric Co. In March, the FAA directed airlines to inspect such engines for possible cracks in turbine rotor discs. The cracks could cause the discs to fly apart and prompt engine failure, the FAA said. The alert was issued after the FAA received a report of an engine failure during a maintenance run on the ground.
Ann Mollica, an aerospace engineer with the FAA in Burlington, Mass., said she she was unable to say whether the problem was at all related to Monday’s crash.
Jet engines have been known to break up catastrophically, hurling shrapnel. In 1989, for example, a United Airlines DC-10 with GE-built engines crashed in Sioux City, Iowa, killing 112 people, after the metal hub that held the engine’s fan blades shattered and ruptured the jet’s hydraulic lines.
Giuliani said his first thought upon hearing about the crash was “`Oh, my God.’ I just passed the church in which I’ve been to, I think, 10 funerals here. Rockaway was particularly hard hit” in the Trade Center disaster, he said.
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