By Stephen McKinley
The passenger jet that tumbled out of a clear blue sky on Monday morning brought ground zero to the streets and doorsteps of Belle Harbor in the Rockaways.
Already reeling from the loss of more than 90 community members from the Sept. 11 terror attacks on the World Trade Center — many of them firefighters and police officers — the wind-whipped seaside community has now been hit with yet more loss and devastation.
At least 260 people on board American Airlines Flight 587, an Airbus A-300, were believed dead, and as many as nine were missing from the crash area on the ground, according to officials. The jet was only three minutes into its flight from John F. Kennedy International Airport to the Dominican Republic when it crashed, apparently due to mechanical failure. It had been delayed in taking off for 35 minutes because of apparent mechanical problems. Many of the victims were Dominicans from Washington Heights in upper Manhattan. Forty-one Dominicans were also lost on Sept. 11.
In the hours after the crash, stunned residents of the suburban enclave of Belle Harbor, Queens, were trying to understand the fiery devastation from the sky. “Why?” was the question on most lips.
Mass was being celebrated at St. Francis de Sales when the plane crashed. Children were off from school. The peaceful, isolated community was just waking to a perfect day when the disaster happened. Sheila Cassidy, a native of County Kerry, could only ask, “Why us? We’re bewildered. We’ve been hit very hard.”
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“We have been hit too hard here,” agreed Barbara Quinn, shaking her head in disbelief. “There have been too many buried from St. Francis since the World Trade Center, over 90 funerals.”
Firefighters and police officers, many of whom live in the area, had no time to wonder what was happening to their community. They ran straight to the scene of the new emergency, many of them not even pausing to grab their uniforms. Msgr. Martin Geraghty of St Francis de Sales Church had been celebrating Mass when the crash happened just two blocks away. He was on the scene within minutes and, according to firefighters, blessed many of the bodies.
Fire chief Peter Hayden, from Battalion 47, had been walking his dog when he witnessed the plane struggling to stay in the air.
“I saw heavy smoke behind the left wing,” he said. “She started to corkscrew, and then the last several hundred feet, she went straight down.” He ran straight toward the crash site.
Helen Hickey was standing in her kitchen on Beach 126th Street when she saw a “huge orange fireball, with black smoke and gray smoke. I screamed, ‘Oh my God, it crashed,’ but even then I thought it was just a helicopter.”
Because it was Veterans Day holiday, Barbara Quinn was going out with her daughter to get coffee and newspapers when she heard the explosion as the plane hit the ground. Her son, a police officer, raced to the scene.
Quinn, whose mother, Bridget, is from Dromore West, Co. Sligo, was going to meet her son after the fire had been extinguished. “My son is a cop,” she explained. “He raced up there with my car.”
Quinn was able to cross the police line on Beach 130th Street after showing her police officer’s mother badge. “Thankfully there’s no school. The school is right by the crash,” she said. There are two public schools within four blocks of the crash site.
This second visitation of death and disaster struck locals as the cruelest of bad luck. Sheila Cassidy said that she had a neighbor whom she believed had lost two relatives on Sept. 11 and then a third in Monday’s crash. Quinn remembered that a local man, Bernie Heeran, who runs the Harbor Lights restaurant in Belle Harbor, had lost a son on Sept. 11.
“His son worked for Cantor Fitzgerald,” Quinn said. “I heard that today, Bernie’s restaurant had been damaged in the crash.”
Visiting the scene soon after the fire had been put out, Gov. George Pataki told reporters, “We’re a strong people and we will come through this. We will try to find the cause as quickly as possible.”
Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani summed up the disbelief for the Rockaways when he remembered, “Oh my God, I just passed the church in which I’ve been to, I think, 10 funerals.”
As the emergency began to scale down by mid-afternoon, fire chiefs and firefighters took time to speak with the press. FDNY chief of Emergency Medical Services operations Andy McCracken said that several firefighters had been injured but none seriously, and “all injured are stable.”
The fires were extinguished and the recovery operation was well under way, though a strong smell of burned fuel still hung on the crisp air. But for the residents of Belle Harbor and the Rockaways, life was far from normal again.
“You think of Rockaway as being away from it all,” said Stewart Carroll, who is from the southerly, beach side of Belle Harbor. “And yet it’s Rockaway that had so many people in the World Trade Center, so many Fire Department people, so many police. And now this. No one would have thought this would be ground zero.”
Peter McDermott contributed to this story.