NEW YORK (CNN) -- For residents near the beaches of New York's borough of Queens, a chilly, quiet Veterans Day holiday gave way to a fresh taste of catastrophe Monday.
Large numbers of residents, many with children home for the day, saw American Airlines flight 587 catch fire and plunge to earth Monday morning. Black smoke billowed over the neighborhood from the crash scene and from other fires sparked by flaming debris.
It was a harrowing site to New Yorkers, who just over two months ago watched in horror as the World Trade Center's twin towers collapsed in Manhattan after two hijacked airliners, one an American Airlines flight, slammed into the buildings.
"I thought, 'What the heck is going on?'" said John Baxter, who rushed out of his home when the impact of the plane jolted the neighborhood.
The Rockaway neighborhood is home to numerous New York firefighters, whose ranks suffered heavy losses in the September 11 attack. Several other neighborhood residents worked at Cantor-Fitzgerald, a bond-trading firm decimated in the twin towers' collapse.
"If September 11 was an earthquake here in this neighborhood, this is an aftershock," said the area's congressman, Rep. Anthony Weiner.
Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, D-New York, toured the crash site Monday, talking with people who had barely dodged disaster.
She spent about five minutes with Kevin and Eileen McKeon, who were home having coffee in the kitchen, their small daughter with them. They heard an explosion.
"The next thing we know, we felt this shudder and the room just exploded," he said. "My daughter got blown through the patio doors. My wife got blown into the living room. And I got blown out the patio doors behind my daughter."
The McKeons, who escaped with minor cuts, learned that one of the Airbus engines crashed into their driveway, crushing their boat and catching part of their house on fire.
More than 40 fire trucks and 200-plus firefighters were dispatched to the scene after pieces of the doomed jet landed in at least four different sites around Rockaway.
"The Rockaway community was hit hard between the firefighters and civilians who were lost at the World Trade Center," said Chief Jimmy Trudden of the Broad Channel Volunteer Fire Department. "For this to happen in this neighborhood, it's tragic. I can't put it into words."
Rockaway is set on a narrow spit separating Jamaica Bay from the Atlantic Ocean. Once a vacation spot for rich New Yorkers, it is now a middle-class neighborhood that many firefighters and police officers call home.
Weiner said about 70 people from the neighborhood died in the World Trade Center attacks. About 25 of those came from one local Catholic parish.
"Just about every day, there's another firefighter buried in this neighborhood," he said.
New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani said he'd been a frequent visitor to the area over the past two months, attending funerals and memorial services for residents who were killed in the attacks.
'Knocked in all directions'
Witnesses said they saw an explosion on one side of the plane before the crash, but different accounts placed the explosion on different sides of the aircraft. Ethan Moses said he saw the aircraft burning from its left side, then the aircraft's left engine fell off.
"It tilted to the left slightly and it made a nosedive, straight down," Moses said.
Firefighters said one of the Airbus A300-600's two engines fell off, crashing into a house and setting it on fire. Neighborhood resident John Baxter said his nephew's apartment was hit by the engine as it fell off the doomed jet's wing.
"Him and his wife and kids were knocked in all directions from the tremendous thump from the engine hitting his building, and he's quite thankful to be alive," Baxter said.
The crash occurred about five miles from New York's John F. Kennedy International Airport, where the jet had just taken off for the Dominican Republic's capital Santo Domingo.
Since the September 11 terrorist attacks, U.S. warplanes have patrolled the airspace around New York. Susan Locke, who lives about five blocks away, said she thought the noise at first was a fighter jet.
"I looked out the window and saw a plane nose-dive, straight down," she said.
Phyllis Paul, who lives near the crash site, said a "big, silvery piece of metal" fell behind her house before the plane went down. Paul, who was eating breakfast when she heard the plane, got her 10-year-old son and got out of the house.
"I was sitting having breakfast and I heard the engines very loud," she said. "They were loud and low, and because of what happened September 11, it gave me a chill."
Government leaders expressed confidence Monday that the people of New York would overcome this latest tragedy.
"The New York people have suffered mightily," President Bush told reporters Monday in the Rose Garden. "They suffer again, but there's no doubt in my mind that New Yorkers are resilient and strong people and will help their neighbors overcome this recent incident that took place."
Clinton said New Yorkers "can rise to any challenge" and would respond to the disaster with vigor. "It sure has been a very tough two months, but there isn't any city in the world that is better prepared or has more courage and grit" than New York, she said.
Giuliani said the crash once again tested the city -- but New York would pass the test.
"The people of this city are the bravest, the strongest, the most determined," he said. "We're going to keep going forward."
-- CNN Correspondent Jason Carroll contributed to this report.