N.Y.'s Dominicans gather to mourn losses

Everyone in community lost friend or relative in crash, leaders say

November 13, 2001|By Sarah Koenig | Sarah Koenig,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

NEW YORK -Last night, as rescuers sorted through crash debris in Queens, hundreds of Dominicans gathered at the opposite end of the city and tried to make sense of what had hit their community.

At Club Deportivo Dominicano, in the heart of Washington Heights, residents of the country's largest Dominican enclave lighted candles, prayed and comforted one another with the easy intimacy of a close-knit community.

They talked about terrorism, about whether they'd ever fly again, and whether Washington Heights would ever be the same.

After a minute of silence, community activist Fernando Mateo addressed the crowd. "In this single day, we've lost more citizens in our community than at any other time. Every Dominican lost a relative or a friend."

About 90 percent of the 260 aboard American Airlines Flight 587 bound for Santo Domingo were Dominicans.

The meeting last night also drew high-level politicians - Gov. George E. Pataki, Sen. Charles E. Schumer and Mayor-elect Michael Bloomberg among them - who promised help and recovery.

But not everyone was sure recovery would come. "We have lost too many people," said Ana Nova, 47, a special education teacher. "I don't see how we can get over it."

Nova's brother-in-law and one of his daughters survived when two hijacked planes crashed into the World Trade Center towers Sept. 11. But after that, he was afraid to fly, Nova said. So he stayed home yesterday when his wife and 3-year-old daughter boarded the flight to Santo Domingo.

The flight was a popular one among New York Dominicans. It usually arrives at noon, which means travelers can have lunch with relatives. Many take their families on the flight. "Flight 587 - I just took that two weeks ago. My mother and father have taken it," said Faviola Soto, 49, the city's first Dominican judge. "I just thought, `Thank God it wasn't me. I have six children.' "

Sitting in the club next to her was Manny Rodriguez, 52. His co-worker at Columbia Presbyterian Hospital, who retired Friday, was on yesterday's flight. "The guys all chipped in to buy him a ticket," Rodriguez said.

Celso Cedeno, a well-known community leader, lost his wife in the crash. As his children wept, he told the crowd he had been wondering about what happened Sept. 11, never knowing his life was about to be ripped apart. "Hold hands," he told them. "Stick together."

It's not empty advice in this part of New York, where people are proud of the neighborhood and know their neighbors. On Sept. 11, they came out on the street and hugged one another, said accountant Maria Pellerano, 34.

Like many at the meeting, Pellerano said she wasn't sure if she knew anyone on the flight but had turned up to show support for the community. But when the politicians began talking, giving the meeting the atmosphere of a news conference, Pellerano went outside.

There, candles surrounded a poster of the Virgin Mary decorated with American and Dominican flags. Nearby, a schoolgirl played the national anthem on her violin.

"I thought it was a vigil, but then I hear them being very political," Pellerano said. "I really didn't appreciate that."

Others did, however. Yaniriz Urbaez, 55, a psychologist who had spent the day counseling victims' relatives at the airport, said it meant a lot that elected officials had appeared. "Usually, they only come when they're seeking our votes," she said.

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