`You couldn't see nothing but flames'

Neighborhood: A plane crash brings more horror to Queens residents already mourning the deaths of at least 100 of their own Sept. 11.

November 13, 2001|By Todd Richissin, Mike Adams and Joel McCord | Todd Richissin, Mike Adams and Joel McCord,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

NEW YORK - Monsignor Martin Geraghty was saying the 9 a.m. Mass at St. Francis de Sales Church and just beginning to bless the bread and the wine when he and his parishioners heard the boom.

He looked up from the altar, out at his congregation, and saw fear.

"With what we've been through," he said a few hours later, "who could blame them?"

As many as 100 residents of Rockaway Beach, a close-knit enclave of mostly working-class men and women between Jamaica Bay and the Atlantic Ocean, were killed in the attack on the World Trade Center two months and a day earlier.

Since Sept. 11, a dozen memorial services have been held in the brick church, with so many people in attendance that they not only filled the pews, but spilled onto the outside steps, where they listened to the services on speakers.

American Airlines Flight 587, with about 260 passengers and crew on board, took off at 9:14 a.m. yesterday from John F. Kennedy International Airport headed for the Dominican Republic. The plane banked right and turned toward the ocean. Three minutes later, it crashed near 132nd Street and Newport Drive, sparking fires at 12 houses, destroying six of them.

Within moments of the plane hitting the ground about three blocks from St. Francis, a woman came inside and whispered to the priest that the neighborhood was afire. Geraghty told the 30 or so people in attendance that it was time to end the Mass, time to check on loved ones.

When he slipped off his vestments and stepped outside, he saw fire snapping upward, smoke billowing all around. And he prepared to do what he had done so many times so recently: bless the dead. "Lord, take care of these people and their loved ones and those who will miss them," he recalled saying. "Lord, take care of us all."

All around Rockaway Beach Boulevard, the area's main drag, people took to the streets, their ordinary days disrupted again.

Firetrucks, ambulances and police cars sped with blinking lights to and from the scene, recovering bodies, tending to the injured and canvassing for witnesses.

Dozens of law enforcement officials turned St. Francis, at 129th Street and Rockaway Beach Boulevard just blocks from the crash scene, into a command center. Gas, electric and telephone workers were on hand to make repairs. Uncertain of whether the crash was caused by terrorists, police blocked streets for a mile approaching the neighborhood, while officers checked identification and allowed only residents to pass.

Bartenders in the pubs turned off their jukeboxes and kept New York's news channels on nonstop.

Eugene Sanfileppo, who lives on Beach 131st Street near the crash, ran toward the flames and the smoke and began pounding on doors, helping those who needed it to a nearby corner for safety and then rushing back to help more. As he ran down the street, there were explosions around him, probably windows blowing out, he figured, maybe some gas lines erupting. "You couldn't see nothing but flames and dark smoke and houses burning down," said Sanfileppo, 45, a bus mechanic. "That explosion, the first thing I thought was we were attacked with a nuclear bomb. That's how loud it was."

Ed DeVito had just parked his oil delivery truck at a gas station and walked inside when he "heard something like a bomb," he said.

"I ducked behind the counter, and the place filled with smoke and I went out the back."

When the smoke cleared, Devito, 37, saw a big piece of the jet's engine had smashed into his truck.

"I wasn't thinking about a disaster. I thought it had been hit by someone who couldn't drive very well."

The impact of the crash reached quickly to Times Square, miles away in Manhattan, where Jackie Ferrentino was celebrating her 15th birthday with two of her friends from The Rockaways, only to be called home before the party started.

She, Jackie Agoglia and Brittany O'Grady boarded the subway at 59th Street, headed for the Flatbush station, where Jackie Agoglia's mother was to pick them up. They huddled together in tears, searching for a reason.

"We're going to know everybody from Rockaway who died," said Brittany.

Later in the day, Theresa Ianelli stood with her father on the shore of Jamaica Bay, where she could look across the water toward the Manhattan skyline, and said a prayer. She had worked the third shift as a nurse at New York Methodist Hospital in Brooklyn and had just dozed off when the crash woke her. When she saw the smoke, she went to her father's house, about four blocks from the crash. Her daughter, out of school for Veterans Day, was there.

"Everything runs through your mind, especially the obvious," she said, alluding to the fears of many of another terrorist attack. "When I saw my family, you've never known anyone so relieved."

On the other side of Jamaica Bay, many who had just seen their friends and relatives off for Santo Domingo, the Dominican capital, came streaming into the Ramada Plaza, where the New York Port Authority had quickly set up a crisis center. Many wept openly.

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