NEW YORK – An American Airlines jetliner bound for the Dominican Republic from New York with 260 people aboard plunged into a seaside neighborhood moments after takeoff Monday morning, tormenting an already grieving city, raising fears of another terrorist act and again rattling the shaken airline industry.
The cause of the crash, which apparently killed everyone on board, remains undetermined, but officials said preliminary evidence pointed to an accident – not an act of terror.
Six other people were reported missing on the ground in Queens.
Eyewitnesses said the plane, a 13-year-old Airbus A300, appeared to explode shortly after takeoff from John F. Kennedy International Airport, then broke apart and went into a nosedive.
It scattered debris, including an engine that witnesses said separated in flight, across several blocks and in a nearby bay as it hurtled to the ground.
A key issue for investigators will be whether the engine, one of two on the plane, fell as a result of mechanical failure or sabotage, or whether the engine’s separation helped cause the crash.
Authorities found the plane’s flight data recorder. National Transportation Safety Board officials said it would be examined in Washington by federal safety experts.
By day’s end, authorities had recovered much of the plane, either from Jamaica Bay or from the ground in Rockaway.
“The authorities are quite confident that in a few days we will have a very definitive answer,” said Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., who visited the crash site and then met with the victims’ families. “To have this much material is rare.”
The fiery crash came two months and a day after the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, amid a heightened sense of alertness across the country.
Authorities, however, warned the public not to assume that the incidents are related.
“People shouldn’t speculate as to the cause,” New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani said at an impromptu news conference near the crash. “It may well have been an engine failure . . . we shouldn’t jump to conclusions.”
Nevertheless, U.S. fighter jets scrambled to patrol air space above New York. Bridges and tunnels into the city were closed and all three major airports in the New York area shut down for a period of time.
U.S. spy agencies also combed through intelligence reports and eavesdropping transcripts looking for any clues that pointed to a terrorist attack, a U.S. official said.
“We are reaching out to see if we’ve heard anybody talking about this after the fact or claiming credit or more importantly, talking about this before the fact,” said the official, who requested anonymity.
“This is still a work in progress. We have no information one way or the other.”
The jet, American Airlines flight 587, went down as New York awoke to on Veteran’s Day holiday. Many of its passengers were Dominicans, returning to or visiting their homeland.
The plane lifted off at 9:14 a.m., more than an hour after its scheduled departure. It was not clear why the flight was late, and the Federal Aviation Administration would not say.
By 9:17 a.m., it had nose-dived into the community of Rockaway Beach, which sits on a sliver of land separating Jamaica Bay from the Atlantic Ocean.
The plane destroyed four houses and damaged more than a dozen others, Giuliani said.
For a nation feeling under siege, the crash was yet another horrific tragedy. For New York and its high-profile mayor, it was another chilling moment in the spotlight after weeks of dealing with the aftermath of the Sept. 11 attack and an outbreak of anthrax cases.
It was especially hard hitting for Rockaway, a waterfront community dotted by rows of single family homes and summer bungalows that lost dozens of firefighters and police officers in the collapse of the World Trade Center’s twin towers.
Linda Spadaro, who lives about three blocks from the crash site, said she saw flaming debris falling from the plane.
“I saw an engine fall off,” Spadaro said. “It just fell off. The plane blew up to a huge fireball. This is horrible.”
Billowing black smoke from the crash was visible more than 20 miles away. Blocks away, another fire broke out from a fallen engine, authorities said. Portions of the plane, including the tail, fell into Jamaica Bay, next to JFK airport about five miles from the crash site.
“It’s terrible,” Ellen O’Toole, a Peninsula General Hospital worker – the closest hospital to the wreck – said nearly four hours after the crash. “There’s no survivors.”
Bill Schwartz, a plumber who was driving through the neighborhood, said he saw the crash.
“The plane was at a nose dive,” said Schwartz. “So I pulled over to look at it. It didn’t seem right to me. Then I saw flames coming from the left-hand side of the plane. Then I saw one of the wings broke off. You could see it breaking apart bit by bit.”
An estimated 175 of the passengers were Dominicans headed to their homeland. More than 100 relatives awaited them in the city of Santo Domingo, and news of the crash caused an outpouring of grief. President Hipolito Mejia declared three days of mourning on the island nation of 8.5 million.
The flight is normally a happy one, full of families who usually celebrate and sing as the plane is taking off, said Steven Garner, an emergency medical services worker who has taken the route numerous times.
“It’s not a jaded group of people who travel all the time,” said Garner, who was at a Ramada hotel at JFK airport to help counsel about 400 grief-stricken family members and friends.
At the Ramada, a pregnant woman scanned the list of passengers on the plane and collapsed upon seeing her husband’s name, Agapito Reyes. The woman’s cousin, America Corona, 36, said Reyes almost missed the flight.
“Now she’s going to have this baby without a father,” she said of her cousin.
New York Gov. George Pataki, who also was at the hotel, reported that the pilot may have dumped fuel in Jamaica Bay before the plane went down, possible evidence that he knew his plane was in danger.
But the former director of the National Transportation Safety Board, Peter Goelz, said ruptured fuel tanks in one or both of the plane’s wings more likely caused the fuel in the bay.
“It would be highly unusual in that period of time that they were dumping fuel,” said Goelz. “It’s likely that all of the crew’s energies would be devoted toward keeping the plane in the air.”
Goelz said the flight data and voice recorders for this particular aircraft monitor several hundred functions. Once both are in hand, he said, “You will be able to tell pretty quickly what was happening.”
The NTSB took the lead in the investigation, underscoring the government’s view that the crash was an accident.
The safety board, the FAA and independent aviation safety experts said they were leaning toward a mechanical failure because the engine appeared to fall off and because the crash happened so early in flight.
“From what little information that’s floating out there right now, there’s nothing that screams that this was a terrorist attack,” said Clint Oster, an Indiana University aviation safety professor and author of the 1997 book “Why Airplanes Crash.” If it were a bomb in the belly of the plane, “you wouldn’t expect that to result in an engine falling off.”
“If the engine was coming off, it probably looks like a safety issue, not a security issue,” said former military crash investigator Mike Polay, professor of aviation safety at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Prescott, Ariz.
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The Airbus A300 and the two General Electric CF6-80C2 engines are generally considered workhorse equipment with few safety problems given their widespread use.
This particular plane had 88 “service difficulty reports” filed with the FAA since it was bought new by American in 1988, according to a database analysis by Air Data Research in Helotes, Texas. In the past five years, 49 out of 54 of those reports have dealt with corrosion issues. But neither the number of reports nor the corrosion problems are unusual, especially for a plane that flies between the Caribbean and New York, according to Air Data Research President John Eakin.
One of the two engines had gone 9,788 hours since its last overhaul, while the other had gone 694, said American spokesman Al Becker. Those engines are supposed to get overhauled every 10,000 hours. It’s still unclear which engine fell.
The crash could not have come at a worse time for American Airlines or the industry as a whole. Already in financial trouble before the Sept. 11 attacks, carriers laid off thousands of employees after the suicide hijackings. Congress promptly approved a $15 billion assistance package that included $5 billion in cash and $10 billion in loan guarantees.
Travel was slowly picking up as the holiday season approached, but analysts said Monday’s tragedy would likely prolong the industry’s recovery.