FBI believes there was fire aboard jet before it crashed

Monday, November 12, 2001

Associated Press WriterNEW YORK (AP) -- An American Airlines jetliner en route to the Dominican Republic with 255 people aboard crashed moments after takeoff Monday from Kennedy Airport, setting homes on fire. There was no immediate word on the number of deaths or injuries.

Bush administration officials said the FBI believed there was an explosion aboard the plane, and was investigating whether it was the result of a mechanical failure or sabotage. Witnesses reported an engine and other debris falling off the plane as it came down.

The city -- already on edge after the Sept. 11 terrorist attack -- was put on high alert. Fighter jets were seen flying over the area.

All metropolitan-area airports -- Kennedy, LaGuardia and Newark, N.J. -- were closed after the crash, which took place in the Rockaway section of Queens. All bridges and tunnels into the city were closed except to emergency vehicles. The United Nations was partially locked down.

In Washington, President Bush met with advisers, seeking details of the crash, which came two months after terrorists in two hijacked airliners brought down the World Trade Center.

Flight 587, an Airbus A300 that can hold 275 people, went down shortly after 9 a.m in a waterfront residential neighborhood 15 miles from Manhattan, setting buildings on fire in a densely populated section is home to many firefighters who were among the dead and the rescuers at the Trade Center. A plume of thick, black smoke could be seen miles away; flames billowed high above the treetops.

The FAA said there were 246 passengers and nine crew members aboard the plane.

Milena Owens, who lives two blocks from the crash site, said she was putting up Thanksgiving decorations on her window when she saw the plane. "I heard the explosion and I looked out the window and saw the flames and the smoke," she said, "and I just thought, 'Oh no, not again."'

In Washington, a senior administration official said that no threats against airplanes had been received and that the pilot reported no trouble before the crash.

A U.S. official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said intelligence agencies, the FBI and the Federal Aviation Administration were reviewing all recent intelligence for any signs that terrorism was involved, but there was no immediate evidence pointing to an attack.

"They are comparing information to see if it provides any insight into what transpired. At this point, there's no indication of a terrorist attack, but it certainly can't be ruled out in the current environment," the official said.

At the Pentagon two defense officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, said no additional fighters had been dispatched to the New York area and that the entire matter was being handled by the FAA as a domestic disaster with no apparent military implications.

The National Transportation Safety Board sent a team to investigate.

Mayor Rudolph Giuliani canceled his morning events and headed to the scene, where he said: "People should remain calm. We're just being tested one more time and we're going pass this test, too."

"Now we should focus all our efforts on finding survivors," Giuliani said.

"The first thing that went through my mind is, 'Oh, my God.' I just passed the church in which I've been to, I think, 10 funerals here. Rockaway was particularly hard hit. The disproportionate number of the people we lost not just the police and fire, but even the workers at the World Trade Center were from Rockaway and Staten Island."

Triage centers were set up a high school and an elementary school, both of which were closed for the Veterans Day holiday.

International flights headed to New York were diverted to Boston, Cincinnati and Washington's Dulles airport, Delta Air Lines said.

The plane had been scheduled to leave at 8 a.m. and arrive in Santo Domingo at 12:48 p.m.

Witnesses reported debris falling from sky and told the Fox News Channel four homes were on fire.

"All of the sudden, I see an engine fall off, and it went to the side, and in 10, 15 seconds it went down," witness Kevin O'Rourke told WABC-TV. "An engine fell off."

Another witness, John Maroney, 47, said the engine plummeted onto a Texaco station near his house, and pieces of plane were a couple of blocks away.

"That's probably what shook us up from our beds. The whole house jumped," he said. "We were all out there with fire extinguishers and hoses, but we couldn't do much."

Witness Phyllis Paul said she heard the plane's engine. "It was very, very loud. Because of what happened Sept. 11, it gave me a chill," she told CNN. "It was getting louder and louder and I looked out the window. I saw a piece of metal falling from the sky."

The Trade Center was destroyed by two Boeing 767s hijacked out of Boston's Logan Airport. One of the planes was operated by American, the other by United.

Airbus said American Airlines has a fleet of 35 A300s.

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