N.Y.'s Rockaways community reels under second swift blow

Where everyone knows everyone and few move away, losses hurt doubly

November 14, 2001|By Todd Richissin | Todd Richissin,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

NEW YORK - Some of the victims on the ground when American Airlines Flight 587 crashed down on them were names or familiar faces to their neighbors.

But to so many people in Belle Harbor, a tiny beachfront community on the southern peninsula of Queens, the victims were much more. They were friends whose parents and grandparents were friends. And many of them were both neighbors and family - sons and daughters who never found a reason to leave the area.

That's how it happened that a firefighter named Walter Blum arrived at a house on Beach 131st Street shortly after Monday's crash and knew right away that there likely were two people killed there, Kathy Lawler, 58, and her son Christopher Lawler, 24.

To Kathy Lawler, Blum was a cousin. To Christopher, he was Uncle Wally.

Belle Harbor, a five-block-wide community hit by the plane almost dead in the center, is a mail carrier's nightmare. At least four different mailboxes have the name Blum slapped on them, and other family names are duplicated on houses just as often.

"People don't move away from this place," said Lucille Sorba, who is 67 and has spent more than half her life in Belle Harbor. "The kids, they don't go away. They go around the corner."

Authorities aren't quite sure how many people on the ground were killed when the American Airbus, bound for the Dominican Republic, crashed into the neighborhood just after taking off. It's somewhere around six to eight, they said yesterday, and again stressed that the number would certainly have been much higher had the plane plowed forward into the houses rather than diving nose-first into the ground.

That's some consolation to residents, but Belle Harbor and the communities that share the peninsula need much more. By various estimates they lost 50 people, maybe 100, in the World Trade Center attacks of Sept. 11. Some of the victims were foot soldiers in the financial world. Most were firefighters or police officers.

The numbers have given the tragedies of Monday and two months ago tentacles that reach into home after saddened home. It is a perverse blessing in the sense that the weight is shared, but a parallel curse because the burden is made all the heavier.

The peninsula's communities, which together are called the Rockaways, are made up of old sturdy houses with old sturdy families, Irish, Italian, Jewish and some newer arrivals. The need to mourn more victims among them is trying, to say the least.

"We get bombed, a plane crashes on our neighbors," lamented Ann Valentine, 43, as she held her 3-year-old son, Billy, with her 10-year-old daughter, Mayla, at her side. "How much longer can we keep telling our children they're safe? How do you tell them what happened to these people?"

Aside from the mother and son, the only other confirmed deaths were a husband and wife, Thomas J. Concannon and Helen Concannon, 35-year residents of the peninsula, both retired.

"I hope that they didn't suffer too much," said Sorba, who knew them and described them as thoughtful and pleasant.

Kathy Lawler was talking on the phone with her sister, Annemarie Greene, in the moments before the plane slammed down, according to the word around town. Greene felt the vibrations of the diving plane, heard the booming noise, and then the phone went dead.

Lawler's body was recovered soon after the fire that burned down her house was put out, before her cousin arrived. She was a secretary for the Diocese of Brooklyn and Queens, a strong woman who loved her children so much she never hesitated to give them a kick in the rear when they needed one, said those who knew her.

"She had tremendous resolve and tremendous faith," said one of those friends, Kathy Johnson, 60, as she dabbed at tears. "It's hard to imagine that a woman so alive isn't here any longer."

Christopher Lawler was a law student at St. John's. His Uncle Wally figured he was sleeping in the basement when the plane hit, said Dan Donahue, 41, a firefighter who was with him.

Walter Blum, along with other rescue workers, dug through the rubble, loath to take a break, until about 5:15 Monday evening. That's when they found Christopher, about eight hours after the plane came crashing down.

"Wally's looking around, and you can just see the pain on his face," Donahue recalled. "We feel bad for victims whoever they are. But I wouldn't be telling the truth if I didn't say it's a lot tougher when it's one of your own."

Blum had just lost 20 of his own Sept. 11, 20 guys from Ladder 137, Engine 268, housed in a two-story brick building on Beach 116th Street, the heart of Belle Harbor's business district, which is little more than a couple of pubs, three or four restaurants and a tobacco stand.

Both of them knew some of the financial workers who perished, too, Donahue said, and that's become a sad bond, this everybody-knew-somebody stuff.

Laura Johnson, 36, used to help at the Mother Goose Nursery School when she was in high school, when Christopher Lawler was dropped off there by his mother. She helped take care of Charlie Heeran, too, who never made it out of the World Trade Center after reporting for work at Cantor Fitzgerald. And she knew Richie Allen Jr.

"When you've held them in your arms, you feel it when they're gone," she said from the steps of St. Francis de Sales Church, her eyes full of tears.

She had just been crying on those very same steps a few days ago. Richie Allen Jr. had been a firefighter, and she was at the church Friday for his memorial service.

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