265 die in N.Y. jet crash

NTSB official says `all indications' point to accident

November 13, 2001|By Marcia Myers and Sarah Koenig | Marcia Myers and Sarah Koenig,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

NEW YORK - An American Airlines jetliner bound for the Dominican Republic made a fiery nose dive into a waterfront neighborhood three minutes after taking off from John F. Kennedy International Airport yesterday morning.

The crash killed all 260 people on board and at least five on the ground and destroyed or damaged a dozen homes. Police indicated several other neighborhood residents were missing.

Investigators were focusing last night on mechanical failure as the cause, although for a jittery public still recovering from the Sept. 11 attacks that destroyed the World Trade Center towers, initial news of the crash brought fears of a new terrorist onslaught.

Several witnesses reported hearing an explosion. But investigators said if one had occurred, it was more likely caused by a catastrophic mechanical failure than a bomb or other explosive device.

"All indications are it's an accident," Marion Blakey, chairwoman of the National Transportation Safety Board, said last night. "The communications from the cockpit were normal up until the last few seconds before the crash."

Under the glare of klieg lights last night, workers were separating debris into piles of luggage, plane parts and human remains. Police said 265 bodies were recovered, many "relatively intact" - including a man found clutching a baby.

The European-made Airbus A300 bound for the Dominican capital, Santo Domingo, took off from New York at 9:14 a.m. - 74 minutes late because of security checks. The skies were clear, and there were no reports of trouble from the cockpit, Blakey said.

Three minutes later, the plane came down vertically, striking 12 homes in the Queens neighborhood of Rockaway Beach, a close-knit, middle-income area on a peninsula that separates Jamaica Bay from the Atlantic Ocean.

It is home to many police and firefighter families, as well as employees of New York City's financial district.

President Bush received word of the crash at 9:25 a.m., said White House spokesman Ari Fleischer.

Fighter jets were immediately dispatched to the area. All three major airports in the New York City area, as well as bridges and tunnels, were temporarily closed. Some buildings, including the Empire State Building, were evacuated.

With the nation on high alert since the September terrorist attacks, officials briefly considered another nationwide shutdown of airports, Fleischer said.

But because there was no indication of terrorism, and because early evidence suggested a strong possibility of mechanical failure, federal aviation officials chose to temporarily close only the New York area airports.

Nevertheless, Fleischer said yesterday that terrorism had not been ruled out.

"I want to be very cautious about any conclusions at this early time about what is the cause of this," he said.

Waiting at Kennedy Airport to board an American Airlines flight to San Francisco, Michael Boyd heard the reports of a plane crash and looked out the windows to see black smoke billowing 15 miles away.

His mind immediately turned to Sept. 11.

"I didn't really know what happened, but one of my first thoughts was could it be ... " he said.

Probably an accident

But investigators maintained that the evidence suggests mechanical failure. The NTSB, rather than the FBI, continues to lead the investigation; the FBI would lead a criminal investigation.

Investigators quickly recovered the cockpit voice recorder, one of the two "black boxes" from the twin-engine jet. George Black of the NTSB said the quality of the recording was good, and that the co-pilot was at the controls, which was not unusual. He said an initial listen to the tape found nothing "to indicate a problem that is not associated with an accident."

A team of nearly 100 investigators set to work last night, combing the area for clues, interviewing witnesses and beginning their effort to reconstruct the accident.

The areas of focus are likely to include a pattern of structural failures in the General Electric engine used in the Airbus, a problem the NTSB called attention to last year.

The Airbus had two CF6-80C2 engines made by General Electric Co. In March, the FAA directed airlines to inspect such engines for possible cracks in turbine rotor discs. The cracks could cause the discs to fly apart and prompt engine failure, the FAA said.

The alert was issued after the FAA received a report of an engine failure during a maintenance run on the ground.

Jet engines have been known to break up catastrophically, hurling shrapnel. In 1989, a United Airlines DC-10 with GE-built engines crashed in Sioux City, Iowa, killing 112 people, after the metal hub that held the engine's fan blades shattered and ruptured the jet's hydraulic lines.

Recent inspections

The Airbus in yesterday's crash had received a minor inspection Sunday. Its last major overhaul was in December 1999, according to an American Airlines spokesman.

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