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Title : Flashbacks to September 11 From Rockaway Crash
Author : Howard Schwach
Date : 2001-11-17
Article :

Even now, almost a week after that fateful Monday morning when American Airlines Flight 587 dropped into Belle Harbor streets, people still search the sky when they hear an aircraft above them.

The tragic accident, which took the lives of at least five Rockaway residents as well as all of the 265 people on the aircraft, was a flashback for many to September 11, when more that 65 Rockaway residents lost their lives.

"The trauma of that day is still so fresh in my memory that it seems like only yesterday," says one resident who saw the plane, its wings in flames and its tail missing pass over The Sunset Diner, where he was eating breakfast. "All I could think of was "Oh, God, not again."

One of the engines that fell from the crumbling plane fell into the Texaco Gas Station on Beach 129 Street, narrowly missing both the gasoline pumps and an oil truck.

"Oh, my God, could lightening strike twice?" asked Susan Millet, a local resident who escaped the Twin Towers and raced home yesterday from here new office in New Jersey to make sure that everybody was safe.

While the aircraft corkscrewed into Beach 131 Street, just off Newport Avenue, it began to break apart long before it came down.

The plane’s tail, a key piece of the aircraft that experts are focusing on as a major clue in why the plane came down, was found in Jamaica Bay, nearby the sewage treatment plant.

Its engines were scattered from Beach 128 Street to Beach 131 Street. One of the engines came to rest in Bullock’s Texaco Service Station, right in the center of the area’s only shopping street.

Other wreckage was found scattered far and wide along the peninsula. The area between Beach 129 Street and Beach 135 Street, between Newport Avenue and Rockaway Beach Boulevard, was closed off by order of the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), effectively cutting off customers from the small business on Beach 129 Street.

And, while the crash was devastating to the Belle Harbor community, and particularly to those who live in the vicinity of Beach 131 Street, most experts agree that the results could have been far worse.

"Had the plane come in at a shallow angle, like a glide, it would have impacted on dozens of homes and killed many more people," a fire official told The Wave. "It is hard to say that a disaster such as this one had a good side, but that is the truth of the matter."

Others voiced the opinion that the fact that the devastation was as a result of an accident rather than another terrorist attack somehow made them feel better.

And, all agree, the accident brought the community closer together, as had the World Trade Center attack just two months and one day earlier.

"If there is anything good that has come from this crash, it has bonded people together more than before," Robert Intelisano, the president of the Belle Harbor Property Owner’s Association told a reporter. "The event that took place was larger than any of us."

The community responded immediately to the disaster.

Off-duty and retired firefighters and police officers, EMT"s and construction workers poured from their homes to assist the emergency responders that were rushing to the scene from all over the city.

Christopher Russell, whose brother, Firefighter Steve Russell, was lost in World Trade Center, reportedly donned his brother’s fire helmet and went from his Beach 129 Street home to assist the on-scene fire units.

Batallion 47 Chief Thomas Murphy lives on Beach 129 Street. He was one of those who quickly realized what had happened and responded.

I heard the plane hit and then my whole house shook," Murphy told reporters. "I didn’t think about it. I ran out in my shorts and T-shirt and started to help the firefighters that were already arriving on scene. It’s just something you do. You really don’t think about yourself."

Eye witnesses and photos shot in the area immediately after the plane hit confirm that there were perhaps more people in civilian clothing fighting the fires in the Beach 130 Street area than there were in firefighter’s bunker gear. For a time, police officers not being used to control traffic and warn residents of danger were also assisting firefighters in "pulling hose" from the engines to the homes that were on fire due to falling aircraft debris.

One of the first police officers on the scene, a 100 Precinct unit on patrol in the area, told central dispatch, "Central, we have a heavy aircraft down on Beach 129 Street, start a mobilization going." Eventually, police officials called for a "Level IV" mobilization, which brought every ambulance in Queens and many from other areas to the site as well. That level mobilization, the highest that can be declared, required that one police sergeant and eight officers from each precinct in the city report to Rockaway. Volunteer units from Broad Channel, Breezy Point, Rockaway Point and Hamilton Beach also responded with both ambulances and with fire apparatus.

"Within minutes, we had the area locked down and people were being evacuated," said police spokesman Richard Kemmler. "Eventually, hundreds of officers from all over the city responded to the scene."

In all, more than 200 firefighters and 250 police officers crowded into Rockaway.

Steve Good, the owner of the Sunset Diner, quickly closed to civilians, allowing those who were already eating to leave without cost, and then opened a free buffet for the emergency responders flooding the area.

Also responding to Rockaway was a USAF combat air patrol made up of A/F-16 Falcons and F-15 Eagles. The sight of the planes roaring over the crash scene only heightened the drama of the morning. It also heightened the sense that the crash was an attack rather than an accident.

The firefighters quickly extinguished the many fires and began the job of combing through the rubble for the bodies of those in the aircraft and those on the ground.

Officials at Peninsula Hospital Center reported that 46 patients related to the crash were treated at the hospital. Most of them were NYPD and FDNY members who needed treatment for smoke related injuries. Of those 46, five were admitted. Three of those had been discharged by press time and one other was transferred to St. Francis Hospital in Nassau County for a procedure that could not be completed in Rockaway.

Hundreds of news organizations flooded the community as well, some from local channels, others from as far away as London, England. Their television transmission trucks lined both Rockaway Beach Boulevard and Newport Avenue around the "five-block frozen zone."

Hundreds of Rockaway residents and officials found themselves in front of cameras or with microphones shoved in their faces.

The "Today" show set up on Beach 131 Street with host Matt Lauer doing constant on the scene interviews for two days.

On Tuesday and Wednesday, officials from all branches of government began to arrive in Rockaway, to tour the crash site and to reassure Rockaway residents.

Governor George Pataki met residents at the Sunset Diner.

"The residents in Belle Harbor are to be commended for their strength and courage in the wake of these tragic events," he said.

He jokingly told residents that he was thinking of buying a home in Belle Harbor.

"It is impossible to speak about the destruction that happened yesterday without recognizing the overwhelming sacrifices of the residents of Rockaway," said Senator Hillary Clinton after touring the area. "The families in this area have already had to attend more funerals in the past two months than anybody should have to endure. They have lost many people who worked at the World Trade Center, as well as the numerous firefighters and police officers who make up this close-knit community. The courage and values of these New Yorkers, these Americans, these public servants, have brought comfort to so many and have stood as a shining example of what is best in America."

Rockaway’s state and federal elected officials have been busy.

Congressman Anthony Weiner has proposed a bill that would mandate a $10 thousand fine for any aircraft that flies over Rockaway, failing to follow the proscribed flight path that takes it over the bay into the ocean.

State Senator Malcolm Smith and Assemblywoman Audrey Pheffer have written to President Bush, asking for a minimum of $25 million in financial assistance to rebuild the infrastructure lost in the crash.

Others have responded to the plight of those whose homes were destroyed in the crash.

Many residents and companies in the tri-state area have contacted The Wave to find out how they can help. Rebecca Brown, a representative of Saks Fifth Avenue, for example, called to see if that company could assist anybody who was devastated by the crash.

Key Food donated all of the bottled water in the store to rescue workers. Duane Reed quickly gave away more than 1,000 surgical and emergency masks. The Washington Hotel offered its premises as a headquarters and also offered shelter to those who had become homeless by the tragic accident.

Many of the stores on Beach 129 Street remained open from Tuesday on, but customers were being kept out of the area by police officers under the orders of the NTSB. The area was reopened to traffic early on Thursday.

Students from St. Francis De Sales School, whose school on Beach 129 Street remained closed, assisted in the clean-up effort by delivering home-made ham sandwiches and drinks by those working at the scene.

Meanwhile, life goes on in Belle Harbor. PS 114 reopened on Tuesday. Governor Pataki, accompanied by Chancellor Levy, visited the school and spoke with students. One of the students asked Pataki if he could remove the large utility lights that were used to illuminate the scene at night.

"Those lights make us nervous and keep us awake at night," the student reportedly told Pataki.

Even that student knew that it was time for Belle Harbor residents to move along with their lives.

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