NEW YORK (AP) A jetliner en route to the Dominican Republic broke apart minutes after takeoff and crashed in a waterfront neighborhood yesterday, engulfing homes in flames and sowing initial fears of a new terrorist atrocity. At least 265 people were killed, police said.
“Everything points to an accident,” said Marion Blakey, chairwoman of the National Transportation Safety Board. “The communications from the cockpit were normal up until the last few seconds before the crash.”
If there was an explosion on the plane and many witnesses heard one it was probably caused by a mechanical failure, investigators said.
“I just thought, “Oh, no, not again,”” said Milena Owens, who was putting up Thanksgiving decorations when she heard an explosion.
American Airlines said 260 people were aboard the jetliner and authorities said none survived. Deputy Police Commissioner Joseph Dunne said 265 bodies had been recovered, but didn”t provide details on how many people might have died on the ground. He said six to nine people in the neighborhood were missing.
As night fell, several hundred people working under the glare of lights formed bucket brigades and separated debris into gruesome piles of luggage, plane parts and human remains. Police said the bodies were being recovered “relatively intact” including a man found clutching a baby.
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 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.
Investigators recovered the cockpit voice recorder, one of the two “black boxes” from the twin-engine jet. George Black of the NTSB said the quality of the recording was good, and that the co-pilot was at the controls, which was not unusual.
Blakey said an initial listen to the machine found nothing “to indicate a problem that is not associated with an accident.”
The search continued for the flight data recorder.
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,” Mayor Rudolph Giuliani said.
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.”
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 neighbors ran to the scene with garden hoses to help put out the fire. Part of the second engine was found another block away, in Kevin McKeon”s back yard after it crashed through his kitchen.
“The next thing we knew, the walls were blowing off,” said McKeon, who was knocked into the yard by the impact, along with his daughter.
The vertical stabilizer the tail fin was pulled from Jamaica Bay, just offshore, Giuliani said.
At least six houses were destroyed, and several others were seriously damaged in some cases, the siding was melted off the homes by intense heat. Forty-one people were treated and released for minor injuries.
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.