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THE CRASH OF FLIGHT 587

A One-Two Punch for One Area of Queens

Scene: Belle Harbor had barely finished services for residents lost Sept. 11 when Flight 587 hit.

November 13, 2001|JANET WILSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

BELLE HARBOR, N.Y. — Terror danced in the air, and this time it was in their own backyard.

Only three days ago, Belle Harbor said goodbye to Richie Allen at a memorial Mass at St. Francis de Sales church. The 31-year-old firefighter was killed Sept. 11 when the World Trade Center collapsed. Now, on a clear blue morning like the one that claimed her son, Gail Allen heard an explosion seven doors away.

She ran outside. "I saw a ball of fire, and then that black mushroom cloud of smoke they talked about at the World Trade Center," she said, shivering with cold and fright. "I never thought I'd see it so close. I hope it's just a regular plane crash. I hope it isn't terrorists."

Scores of people--some say at least 75--from this silver-sand sliver of Queens known as the Rockaway Peninsula died when two hijacked planes flew into the World Trade Center. Now another plane was killing still more.

Not in Manhattan, but right here in Belle Harbor. Maybe it was not terrorism, but there was no mistaking the terror.

Dirty smoke hovered above the town like pillars on a sacrificial altar. It was from the remains of American Airlines Flight 587, which plummeted into Allen's neighborhood shortly after 9 a.m., after taking off from John F. Kennedy International Airport, only two miles away across Jamaica Bay.

The bodies of 260 people on the plane lay in rubble scattered along Newport Avenue from Beach 130th to Beach 131st streets. Parts of the aircraft had fallen onto several houses. Somewhere in the orange flames and dank smell were from six to nine people missing from the town.

The plane also hit a tree, smashed into a veterinary hospital and a mini-mall. One engine, which apparently came off in flight, fell into the middle of Jim Bullock's Texaco station on Beach 129th Street.

The engine was in flames.

Bullock ran outside, turned on a water hose and sprayed it.

His station survived.

A quarter of a block from the point of impact, Amy McDade heard a loud noise. She grabbed her three children, ages 6, 3 and 1. "We could see the plane," she said. "We could see it hit.

"When we opened the front door, we couldn't see anything. It was just black smoke. A policeman ran through the smoke screaming and said, 'Get out! It's going to explode!' "

The policeman ran.

So did McDade and her children, seconds before her bedroom window broke and a small piece of the plane hit her balcony.

Public school was out for Veterans Day, but two blocks away, children at a Mazarah Haf Torah--a Jewish school--ran outside. A rabbi yelled: "Run for the bridge! Run for the bridge!"

He pointed toward the Gil Hodges Bridge, known locally as the Marine Park Bridge, over Jamaica Bay. They ran to it, then walked across. Afterward, they returned to the school and spent half an hour praying that everything would be all right.

For a while, Karen Stengel, who lives nearby, did not think that it would.

"All hell broke loose," she said. "I heard a sound. It was like a train--a rolling, big sound. Then I looked out the window, and I saw a silver plane--with the tail and wings--coming right down, belly facing us, heading straight into the ground, nose down.

"Then there was a huge explosion and a black wall of smoke; lots of flames inside the smoke. And I just grabbed my son and my mother and said, 'We have to get out of here.' "

This is a tightknit community: police, firefighters, city employees, even stockbrokers. It is only four blocks wide, across the full width of a narrow spit of land, and five blocks long. Because of what the townspeople do, it already had sacrificed more than its share at the World Trade Center.

"I said Richie's Mass," said Msgr. Martin Gerahty, pastor at St. Francis de Sales, of Allen's son, the firefighter who died at the World Trade Center. "It was the last one of 12. This neighborhood has been through a great deal. We're a neighborhood of great faith. But it's very hard. . . . Of course, it tests your faith."

The monsignor spoke as he walked down Rockaway Boulevard, coming back from where the jetliner had fallen, only a block from the church. "We were in the middle of the 9 a.m. Mass this morning," he said. "We heard an explosion. We paused. Someone came in the back of the church and said there was a fire."

He turned with deliberation as he spoke, toward the smoke and flames. He wore an old green and blue sweater, and his words were soft but heavy. "I decided we should stop the service. We emptied the church. I told everybody to go find their families and get together and be safe."

Then, he said, he walked down to the tragedy. "I said a blessing over the bodies."

Joe Butler, 29, a firefighter at East New York Ladder Company 103, was at home in Belle Harbor when he heard the crash. He had lost Joe Patrick, a stockbroker who was his best friend in college, at the World Trade Center. Butler ran outside. "There was so much thick, black smoke I couldn't believe it."

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