Giuliani moves in again to comfort the grieving

The Mayor
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The Independent US

The modest seaboard community of Rockaway, already mourning dozens of victims from the 11 September terrorist attacks, suffered its second disaster in two months when the burning passenger jet fell from the sky and destroyed four homes.

People in Rockaway, built on an 11-mile (17km) peninsula directly underneath the JFK airport flight path, said yesterday that as many as 40 funerals have taken place locally in the two months since the twin towers were turned into rubble. Among them were firefighters, police and employees of the brokerage house Cantor Fitzgerald.

The Mayor of New York, Rudolph Giuliani, recognised the link as he rushed to the disaster scene yesterday morning. When he was first told about the crash, Mr Giuliani said his reaction had been: "Oh, my God, and I just passed a church in which I had been to, I think, 10 funerals. Rockaway was particularly hard hit in proportion to the people we lost."

Fifteen Rockaway residents were in hospital last night, according to initial reports, after the American Airlines Airbus-300 exploded and crashed into the Queens neighbourhood moments after take-off on its way to the Dominican Republic. As the plane started plunging into the rows of white-painted clapboard houses and their neatly kept yards, locals thought they were once again under attack from terrorists.

With yesterday being Veterans' Day, a national holiday, most people were not at work and instead witnessed the plane crash into their neighbourhood. It also meant that most children were not at school – raising fears that a number of them may have been in the buildings struck by the plane as it came down and exploded into flames.

"I just saw this plane coming down to us and I thought, 'Oh God, they are attacking us'," said one woman. "I just thought, 'Oh my God'."

Mr Giuliani – again thrust into the spotlight by events well outside of his control – cancelled his morning schedule and headed to the scene, where he said: "People should remain calm. We're just being tested one more time and we're going to pass this test too. Now we should focus all our efforts on finding survivors."

It is the third disaster of international resonance that Mr Giuliani has had to face as mayor. In July 1996, a TWA Boeing 747 on its way to Paris exploded only a few miles away, off Long Island, five minutes after take-off, plunging into the Atlantic Ocean and killing all 230 people on board.

On 11 September this year, the blackest day in New York's history, among Mr Giuliani's first words when he took off the mask he was wearing over his mouth to protect him from the dust, were: "The city is going to survive. We're going to get through it."

For the best part of two hours every day, the Mayor would tour what has become known as ground zero. He accompanied politicians, shook hands with the rescue workers; he wore the blue cap borrowed from one of his city police officers. In an anxious and frightened city in which many people were looking for leadership, most observers agree that Mr Giuliani, who steps down in January upon handing over to the newly elected Michael Bloomberg, did a better than fair job. Even those who had previously mocked were quick to praise.

"He is an amazing man," said a tearful David Letterman, the first night that his talk show went back on air. "To run this city in the midst of this obscene, obscene attack with the dignity he has shown ... My God, who can do that? That's a pretty short list ...

"Rudy Giuliani is the personification of courage."

Yesterday, the 57-year-old Mr Giuliani, a former lawyer and US attorney for New York, was again at the centre of things, talking tough and offering comfort.