Another air tragedy, another test of courage

New York crash: Understandable terrorist fears aroused, but patience needed during search for cause.

November 13, 2001

A NATION on edge, a city on edge were sorely tested again yesterday with the shocking crash of an airliner shortly after takeoff from New York's John F. Kennedy International Airport.

The national anguish and terror of Sept. 11 were revisited with the fiery destruction of an American Airlines Airbus A300 carrying 255 people as it fell into Queens neighborhoods just after takeoff.

The cause of the tragedy was not known. Air disaster investigations typically take many months. There was no early sign of terrorist involvement, or of pilot distress.

But coming two months after hijacked airliners destroyed the World Trade Center towers and killed thousands of people, the terrorist connection seemed inescapable. Disbelief was replaced by the numbing persuasion that this type of horrific assault could reoccur despite heightened security.

All New York-area airports were closed, as were tunnels and bridges into the city. The United Nations was partially locked down. Fighter jets overflew the sites of burning wreckage. This, too, has become the expected response in the enduring emergency.

The incident will add to the urgency of congressional action on overhaul of airport security systems nationwide. Political posturing over government or private screening agencies becomes more repugnant, as an impatient country looks for fundamental improvements in air safety.

The other reality is that aircraft accidents may happen even in good weather and despite rigid maintenance and inspection precautions. Mechanical failures occur, as do unforeseen quirks of fate, regardless of an aircraft's solid safety record.

The National Transportation Safety Board, not a law enforcement agency, is heading the investigation. It may discover sinister causes, but that is not the present indication. Fears are not easily calmed in these times, but the nation must show its fortitude in supporting a clear-headed look for answers to this latest air tragedy.

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