SCMP Wednesday, November 14, 2001

Clues sought in New York crash that killed over 250

REUTERS in New York

Last updated at 4.57pm:
Investigators on Tuesday combed the wreckage of American Airlines Airbus crash in New York that killed up to 269 people, searching for clues to a possible mechanical failure that might have brought down the Dominican Republic-bound jetliner.
Flight 587, an Airbus A300 jet bound for Santo Domingo crashed on Monday evening in a residential neighbourhood in the borough of Queens less than two minutes after take-off from John F. Kennedy airport, killing 251 passengers and nine crew and leaving up to nine people missing on the ground.
While officials refused to rule out any possible causes, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) which is leading the investigation of the third catastrophic American Airlines crash in two months, said early indications pointed to an accident.
''All information we have currently is that this is an accident,'' said NTSB Chairwoman Marion Blakey. The Federal Aviation Administration, law enforcement authorities and the White House made similar statements.
City and state authorities, on high alert following the September 11 hijacked plane attacks on the World Trade Centre and Pentagon which involved two American Airlines planes, quickly closed major airports in the area as well as bridges and tunnels.
They were re-opened hours later when security concerns eased in a city already gripped by a crisis mentality perpetuated by a series of anthrax attacks in the weeks after September 11.
Ms Blakey said the doomed plane's cockpit voice recorder had been recovered, but the flight data recorder, which could also provide critical clues to the cause, was still missing.
The safety board sent an investigative team from Washington to the crash site, a routine move after accidents.
''Right now we don't believe it is [a terrorist incident] because we don't have any information indicating that it is,'' FBI spokeswoman Tracy Ballinger said.
Ms Blakey said the safety board had been in contact with senior FBI and White House officials. The FBI took the lead in the September hijack attacks, but only provided support in Tuesday's investigation. Ms Blakey also said there had been no unusual communication between air controllers and the cockpit.
The plane crashed about two minutes after taking off at 10.14pm (HK time) on Monday from JFK, and eyewitnesses said they saw debris falling from the aircraft before it crashed in a residential neighbourhood in Rockaway, on a barrier island between Jamaica Bay and the Atlantic Ocean.
New York Governor George Pataki said the pilot was believed to have dumped fuel just before the crash, indicating that he knew the plane was in serious trouble.
Wreckage was scattered over a wide area, including parts of the bay, where a large section of the plane's tail was pulled from the water late on Monday.
First Deputy Police Commissioner Joseph Dunne said 265 bodies had been recovered. Police were asking family members for DNA samples to help in the identification process.
About a dozen houses were damaged or totally destroyed by the crashed plane. Many of them caught fire, sending flames and smoke billowing from the neighbourhood. Clothes, broken suitcases and other debris hung from burning trees.
Witnesses said the plane split apart and hit the ground nose first. Most did not hear an explosion before the plane crashed, but there were conflicting reports.
Retired firefighter Tom Lynch said he watched the plane explode as he looked out his window. ''It definitely exploded in the sky,'' he said. ''I saw a whoof, a flame, and looked like a wing falling off the airplane and it nose-dived right down.''
Patrick Twohig, the director of communications for a drug treatment programme, said he was in his bathroom when ''All of a sudden I heard this terrible bang, very abrupt and very sharp.
''I looked out ... and saw the plane with flames going out the back. Then it turned, came down sharply then nose dived right into the ground. Both wings were still intact,'' he said.
Hundreds of firefighters and police converged on the middle-class suburb, cordoning off a 10-block area to search for survivors among the charred pieces of wreckage.
One engine fell at a gas station just feet from the pumps, where a worker put out the fire with a hose, while the other was found blocks away.
Hospital officials said they treated about 60 people injured on the ground, including about 40 firefighters and police officers, for smoke inhalation. The neighborhood was home to scores of firefighters and office workers killed in the World Trade Centre collapse.
The Red Cross set up shelters for displaced residents.
The crash came just two months and one day after two hijacked passenger planes crashed into the twin towers, killing some 4,300 people.
Mayor Rudolph Giuliani said his first thought when he learned of the crash was ''Oh my God.''
''We are just being tested one more time and we are going to pass this test too,'' he said.
At least 150 Dominicans were believed to be on the plane and relatives and friends waiting at Santo Domingo's airport cried out in grief as they heard of the crash.
''All my family were coming on this flight. They were coming to be with me for Christmas,'' cried one woman. ''My God, how terrible. Why, why?''
American Airlines issued a partial passenger list early on Tuesday which indicated that almost all those on board were from the United States or the Dominican Republic.
Shocked and grieving members of New York's Dominican community held a candlelight vigil to mourn the dead.