An American Airlines plane crashed this morning in the Rockaway Beach section of Queens after departing nearby JFK Airport, with authorities leaning towards mechanical malfunction as the cause.
American Airlines confirmed it was Flight 587, an Airbus A300, headed for Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic. All 246 passengers and nine crew members on board are presumed to have died.
The plane went down about five miles from the airport around 9:17 a.m., three minutes after takeoff. Although some people reported seeing and hearing an explosion, most eyewitnesses said they saw the plane break apart without a blast, according to Mayor Rudolph Giuliani.
"I looked out the window and there was the plane going down, nose first, the belly facing us, going straight down," said one Rockaways resident who witnessed the crash. "It was intact. The wings were there, the tail was there, the nose was there. There was no smoke coming from it against the blue sky. It was just a huge silver plane going straight down."
"All of a sudden the house shook. I thought it was an earthquake, and then I saw the plane. I went outside and it was just a huge plume of smoke," added another eyewitness.
There are also conflicting reports as to whether one of the engines fell from the fuselage midair before the plane itself nose-dived into the ground.
A large piece of an engine was found six feet short of a Texaco station's gas tanks, about four blocks from the main concentration of wreckage at Beach 131st Street and Newport Avenue. The second engine, which is more intact than the other, lodged into a shed about one block to the east.
The Coast Guard recovered the vertical section of the tail and other pieces of wreckage from Jamaica Bay, which separates the Rockaway peninsula from JFK Airport on mainland Queens.
Twelve homes in the residential neighborhood were damaged, four of them completely destroyed. Flames broke out but were quickly controlled by nearly 200 responding firefighters, and the billowing smoke, initially visible for miles, soon abated.
There were no distress calls from the pilot or other early indications of trouble, and officials said no threats against the flight had been received. The National Transportation Safety Board was designated the lead agency in the investigation, signaling authorities are favoring the theory of mechanical failure over sabotage or terrorism.
At a press briefing Monday afternoon, NTSB Chairwoman Marion Blakey said early evidence indicates the crash was an accident. She also said the flight data recorder, the so-called black box, has already been recovered and will be sent to Washington for analysis.
At a news conference later in the afternoon, Mayor Giuliani and Governor George Pataki said the pilot dumped fuel into Jamaica Bay before the crash, which Pataki said is "consistent with the pilot having some belief that there was a significant mechanical failure on the plane."
The mayor said 240 bodies have been recovered as of 6:30 p.m. Monday, adding there is little hope of finding any surviving passengers or crew. He also said six Rockaway residents have been reported as missing since the crash.
Peninsula, Jamaica and St. John's hospitals reported treating a total of 26 people who were on the ground, all for minor injuries like abrasions and smoke inhalation.
All flights to and from New York's area airports - JFK, LaGuardia, Newark and Westchester County - were immediately halted after the crash, as fighter jets guarded the city's airspace. Newark and LaGuardia resumed flights early Monday afternoon, and JFK is now accepting incoming flights only.
Outgoing flights from JFK are expected to resume sometime Monday evening after investigators can verify the jet fuel at the airport is not contaminated.
New York City, already on high alert since two hijacked planes toppled the World Trade Center's twin towers September 11, was placed under a Level One state of emergency for a few hours Monday as a precaution, closing all city bridges and tunnels and mobilizing all available police, fire and emergency personnel.
All crossings have since reopened, except inbound lanes to the Rockaways on the Peninsular, Cross Bay, Marine Park, Atlantic Beach and Gil Hodges Memorial bridges. The A train to the Rockaways - as all city subway lines - is still running normally.
American Airlines set up a hotline for family members of the passengers and crew of Flight 587 at 1-800-245-0999. A support center for families has opened at the Ramada Hotel near JFK Airport, to be moved to the Jacob Javits Convention Center in Manhattan Tuesday morning.
The majority of the passengers - as many as 90 percent, according to some estimates - are thought to be Dominicans. Flight 587 is a popular route for the New York Dominican community to visit family in their native country.
A candlelight vigil is scheduled for 8 p.m. Monday at Club Deportivo Dominico in Washington Heights, at Amsterdam Avenue and 163rd Street.
Flight 587 plowed into a community still coping with tremendous losses from the World Trade Center tragedy two months ago. Nearly 100 residents of the Rockaways, mostly firefighters, died in the terrorist attack.
Map shows area of Rockaway Beach plane crash:
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