SCMP Wednesday, November 14, 2001

Investigators say no evidence of criminal act in plane crash

REUTERS in New York

Updated at 1.39pm:
An American Airlines Airbus crashed into a New York neighbourhood minutes after take-off on Monday, killing up to 269 people in an inferno that sparked fears of a fresh attack on the city but appeared to be an accident.
Heading up the investigation, the National Transportation Safety Board said there was no initial evidence that the crash of Flight 587, bound for Santo Domingo in the Dominican Republic, was caused by a criminal act.
The plane's cockpit voice recorder was recovered, while the flight data recorder that also could provide critical clues was still missing, said NTSB Chairwoman Marion Blakey.
But city and state authorities, on high alert following the September 11 hijacked plane attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon, hastily sealed off airports, bridges and tunnels. They were reopened hours later as security concerns eased.
Carrying 251 people and nine crew members, the Airbus A300 crashed about two minutes after taking off at 9:14am local time from John F. Kennedy International Airport, the NTSB said.
Flames and smoke billowed from the Rockaway district of the borough of Queens where the plane struck a dozen houses as it crashed, setting them ablaze.
Up to nine people were missing on the ground, police said.
''Houses are destroyed. There are pieces of plane all over the place. There's a series of lines of body bags and they're just carrying the bodies out,'' said Fire Department Chaplain Father John Delendick. ''I just stood there and prayed.''
Clothes, broken suitcases and other debris from the plane hung from burning trees in the working-class neighbourhood.
''There's a lot of bodies,'' said an unidentified Emergency Medical Services technician. ''A lot of the bodies were intact. It's hard to tell whether they were all from the plane or from the houses that the plane hit.''
Residents of the area, home to about a dozen firefighters killed in the World Trade Center collapse, tearfully covered their faces to protect themselves from the thick smoke.
Hospital officials said they treated about 60 people injured on the ground, including firefighters and police officers with smoke inhalation.
''I don't believe there are any survivors [on the plane] at this point,'' Mayor Rudolph Giuliani said.
The crash came just two months and a day after two hijacked passenger planes crashed into the twin towers of the World Trade Center, killing some 4,300 people.
Mr 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.
The NTSB said communication was normal between the plane and air traffic controllers and that only the voices of the pilot and co-pilot could be heard on the recorder.
''What we are trying to say here is there is no evidence of any kind of criminal activity,'' said Ms Blakey. ''Everything points toward an accident.''
First Deputy Police Commissioner Joseph Dunne said 265 bodies had been recovered, but none had been identified. He also said 181 body parts had been found.
Police were asking family members for DNA samples to help in the identification process.
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, the mayor said.
Retired firefighter Tom Lynch said he watched the plane explode as he looked out his window.
''It definitely exploded in the sky,'' he said. ''It wasn't that loud ... I saw a whoof, a flame, and looked like a wing falling off the aeroplane and it nose-dived right down.''
Struck by parts of the shattering plane, six houses were destroyed and another six seriously damaged, their walls or roofs destroyed, witnesses said. The houses were just a couple of blocks from Rockaway Beach on the Atlantic Ocean.
A large chunk of the engine landed at a gas station and another engine piece fell four blocks away. Other parts of the plane fell into nearby Jamaica Bay, where a vertical stabiliser from the tail section was recovered, the mayor 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?''
Not all family members had been located so the names of those on board could not yet be released, the NTSB said at its late night news conference.
Donald Carty, chief executive of American Airlines, said the company had ''absolutely no indication'' what caused the crash. He said the plane was 17 or 18 years old, calling it ''a mid-life airplane.''
Stocks and the dollar fell on news of the crash but recovered as the NTSB pointed to an accident.
The blue-chip Dow Jones industrial average ended with a loss of 53.63 points, or 0.56 per cent, at 9,554.37 after sinking more than 2 per cent earlier in the day. AMR closed down $1.64, or 9 per cent, at $16.49 on the New York Stock Exchange.
Mr Giuliani said the city boosted its already high state of security immediately after the crash ''because you always have to assume the worst.''
''As soon as we were able to get all the facts, we de-escalated,'' he said.
Of the plane's 251 passengers, five were infants seated on passengers' laps, according to American Airlines.
All three major airports -- Kennedy, Newark International Airport and La Guardia -- shut down for several hours but reopened later in the day.
Shocked and grieving, New York's Dominican community held a candlelight vigil to mourn the dead.
''These people that we lost today will not be forgotten,'' Mayor-elect Michael Bloomberg told a crowd gathered in Washington Heights, home to thousands of immigrants from the Dominican Republic. ''All 8 million people who live in New York City grieve with the relatives.''
In Washington, President George W. Bush said: ''The New York people have suffered mightily. They suffer again. But there's no doubt in my mind that New Yorkers are resilient and strong and courageous people and will help their neighbours overcome this recent incident that took place.''