Signs point to accident in crash of jet that killed 262

Tuesday, November 13, 2001

Associated Press WriterNEW YORK (AP) -- Investigators scoured wreckage in search of the flight data recorder from a Dominican Republic-bound jetliner that crashed in a waterfront neighborhood, killing at least 262 people.

American Airlines Flight 587 crashed less than three minutes after taking off from Kennedy International, raining debris on the Rockaways section of Queens, and initially raising the specter of another terrorist attack.

Authorities said early signs pointed to an accident, basing their assessment partly on communications heard on the cockpit voice recorder. But they didn't rule out sabotage or other causes.

"We're not going to exclude that possibility until the investigation goes much further than this," George Black, a member of the National Transportation Safety Board, said Tuesday on NBC's "Today" show.

Investigators still had not found the flight data recorder -- the plane's other "black box" -- which tracks speed and actions of the engine and instruments.

"The communications from the cockpit were normal up until the last few seconds before the crash," said NTSB head Marion Blakey.

All 260 people aboard the European-made Airbus A300 were killed, the airline said.

Mayor Rudolph Giuliani said Tuesday that 262 bodies had been recovered. On Monday, Deputy Police Commissioner Joseph Dunne said 265 bodies had been recovered -- including a man found holding a baby. Dunne didn't provide details on how many people might have died on the ground. Six to nine people in the Belle Harbor neighborhood were missing, he said.

With the help of klieg lights, the recovery continued through the night as firefighters and dogs went through the rubble.

The crash occurred two months after two hijacked planes -- one an American Airlines jet -- leveled the World Trade Center, leaving more than 4,000 missing or dead.

Monday's crash initially renewed terrorism fears: the Empire State Building was evacuated, and bridges, tunnels and all three of the New York area's major airports were closed for a time.

"The assumption the police had to make and I had to make was that there was going to be another attack, and so we had to close down parts of the city," Giuliani said Tuesday on "Today."

Giuliani said he spoke to President Bush from the scene.

"He said, 'New York City is really being tested. It's a shame.' I said, 'Mr. President, New York City is up to the test."

Witnesses reported hearing an explosion and seeing an engine, a large chunk of a wing and other debris falling from the sky as the plane crashed.

"I thought we were being bombed, because I didn't see the plane," said Janet Barasso, in her home a block from where the plane crashed. "I looked out the window and saw a big ball of flame and smoke."

But if there was an explosion on the plane -- and many witnesses heard one -- it was probably caused by a mechanical failure, investigators said.

There have been documented failures involving the family of CF6 General Electric engines on the plane, though none involved fatalities. The Federal Aviation Administration warned just last month that its own study of problems with these engines indicates a need for tougher, mandatory inspections of possibly worn parts.

The NTSB warned separately less than a year ago that an in-flight failure of these engines could send hot metal fragments tearing through important control systems or fuel lines -- and could cause a plane to crash.

The NTSB's Black cautioned it was "way too early" to connect the crash with other failures involving the type of engine that powered the airplane. But he added: "We will be looking at that."

He said the quality of the voice recorder was good, and that the co-pilot was at the controls, which was not unusual. Black said it was possible that the flight data recorder could have fallen into the water and that sonar might be used to search for it.

The plane's vertical stabilizer -- the tailfin -- was found floating in Jamaica Bay, just offshore; visible on the wreckage were the American Airlines logo and an American flag.

One smoking engine was found intact in a parking lot at a Texaco station two blocks from the crash site, where it had missed the gas pumps by no more than 6 feet. Part of the second engine was found another block away, in a back yard.

Eleven houses were seriously damaged or destroyed -- in some cases, the siding was melted off the homes. Dozens were hospitalized after responding to the infernos.

Mark Shorr, whose house was severely damaged, grabbed his daughter and ran when he heard the explosion.

"The whole house started to shake," he said. "I looked out the door and all I saw was the color of pumpkin, this dark orange."

Rockaway residents like Shorr struggled to understand how their neighborhood could be hit again so soon after Sept. 11. The neighborhood lost scores of residents, including firefighters and financial services workers, in the trade center catastrophe.

The suffering of residents and relatives and friends of the passengers on board stretched to Santo Domingo. The daily shuttle was highly popular among the city's large Dominican community because its morning takeoff allowed visitors to spend most of the day in the Dominican Republic.

"Just on the heels of one horror, another," said Fern Liberman, who lived a few blocks from the crash site.

The airline released a partial victim list as it worked to notify families of victims. Most of those on board were Dominicans or of Dominican descent, authorities said.

Felipe Rodriguez said he lost his younger brother Ruben, 32, a member of the U.S. Navy who had just returned Saturday from a seven-month stint in the Adriatic. He said Ruben Rodriguez stopped long enough in New York to grab some belongings and headed to the Dominican Republic for a reunion with his wife and three young children.

"My brother's 3-year-old son keeps saying to his mother, 'When's daddy coming home? Where's daddy?"' said Felipe Rodriguez. "All we want is the body back so we can mourn properly, and the truth."

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