Category: Archive

Widespread devastation greets rescue workers

February 16, 2011

By Staff Reporter

By Stephen McKinley

Three separate crash sites greeted police and firefighters in Belle Harbor on Monday morning.

Because flight 587, an American Airlines Airbus A-300 carrying 251 passengers and 9 crew members, apparently broke up in midair, wreckage was strewn across the area and in Jamaica Bay as well. But most of the fuselage hit Beach 131st Street at the intersection of Newport Avenue, where at least six houses were destroyed. One engine hit the forecourt of a Texaco gas station two and a half blocks away on Beach 129th Street, between Cronston and Newport Avenues, narrowly missing the gas pumps and thus averting an even greater catastrophe.

The second engine crashed on the driveway of 416 Beach 128th St., also between Cronston and Newport Avenues, damaging the home of Kevin and Ilene McKeon. These secondary sites caused much less serious damage than the main crash.

For many onlookers and helpers from the neighborhood, it seemed sheer bad luck that Belle Harbor had been hit — the Rockaways are a long, narrow ribbon of land, rarely more than a few blocks wide, hemmed in by Jamaica Bay and the Atlantic Ocean.

The main crash site on Beach 131st Street occurred when the bulk of the plane hit the ground and exploded in a ball of flame.

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For rescue workers like firefighter Joe Hunt, there was no time to think of what was happening, only to get from Flatbush Avenue in Brooklyn and get to work. Although he was off-duty, he knew that his sister lived on Beach 148th Street. Hunt was one of the first on the scene.

“I went down there,” he said as he changed out of his smoke and soot-stained uniform on Newport Avenue, packing it into the trunk of his car.

“It was devastation. A big crater, at least a couple of houses whipped out, plane wreckage wrapped around the foundations. And bodies. There were burned bodies all over.”

Hunt said that the fire had been brought under control with foam because it was largely jet fuel. Water had then been used from tower ladders to extinguish the burning wreckage, pouring over 1,000 gallons a minute on the ruins. The smell of kerosene persisted long after the fire was extinguished.

Hunt, like many other firefighters who attended the scene, had been involved in the World Trade Center tragedy and had lost colleagues on Sept. 11.

“I’m now in the Trade Center task force,” he said. “I was there 12 hours yesterday.”

Firefighter Sebastian Fodera said that most of the wreckage was unidentifiable.

“Four or six houses are completely gone,” he said. “They are burned right off the foundations. We searched the foundations of one building, but there are no survivors.”

“At least four houses on the corner are gone, and two more on the avenue. These were two-, three-story buildings.”

Fire Department Lt. Bill Gallagher said that Beach 131st Street at the main crash site had been scorched black by the fires.

The Emergency Medical Services operations chief for the FDNY, Andy McCracken, said that several firefighters had been injured but none seriously.

Another firefighter said that the hazardous work of putting out the fire was made more dangerous because two propane tanks at the rear of houses had also exploded because of the fire.

Battalion Chief Peter Hayden, who had witnessed the crash while walking his dog — his first day off from duty at the World Trade Center in some days — said that his first thoughts were: “I can’t believe this is happening. We have all lost many, many friends already.”

Shock, surprise and dismay were the emotions felt by most firefighters at the site. But Lt. Bill Gallagher summed up the response of the Bravest and the Finest as they ran to their new ground zero: “We love all these people. We searched the buildings we could search. We just went to work.”

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