Flight 587: The deadly plane crash that shook the nation

American Airlines passenger plane smashed into Queens neighbourhood, killing all 260 people on board, just two months and a day after 9/11, initially reviving terror fears. Joe Sommerlad reports

Friday 12 November 2021 16:08
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<p>Maxima Nunez and Carlos Morales grieve at a service for family members of the victims of the American Airlines Flight 587 crash on 12 November 2001 in New York City. Morales lost both his parents in the crash</p>

Maxima Nunez and Carlos Morales grieve at a service for family members of the victims of the American Airlines Flight 587 crash on 12 November 2001 in New York City. Morales lost both his parents in the crash

Twenty years ago - and just two months and a day after the traumatic events of 9/11 - another tragic plane crash sent shockwaves through a still on-edge New York City.

American Airlines Flight 587, a regular direct flight from John F Kennedy International Airport to Las Americas International Airport in Santo Domingo, the capital of the Dominican Republic, went down shortly after takeoff, smashing into the Queens neighbourhood of Belle Harbour on the Rockaway Peninsula.

All 251 passengers on board were killed, 90 per cent of them Dominicans heading home to visit family, as were all nine crew members and five bystanders on the ground.

Initially feared to be another al-Qaeda terror attack, the incident of 12 November 2001 was later ruled to have been an accident by the investigating National Transportation Safety Board, which concluded that pilot error and a design flaw were jointly to blame.

The officials’ verdict was that the aircraft’s first officer, Sten Molin, 34, who had been flying the Airbus A300B4-605R at the time, had overused the rudder controls in response to wake turbulence from Japan Airlines Flight 47, which had taken off from JFK moments before 587.

His overcompensation only served to place stress on the plane’s vertical stabiliser, the resulting sideslip causing it to separate from the aircraft and plummet into Jamaica Bay, swiftly followed by the plane’s engines, likewise under duress from the intense forces working against it.

Out of control, 587 dived into a flat spin and slammed into the ground at Newport Avenue and Beach 131st Street.

The disaster was devastating for all New Yorkers but particularly for the city’s Dominican emigrant community, many of whose members lived in and around Manhattan’s Washington Heights area.

“Every Dominican in New York has either taken that flight or knows someone who has,” Belkis Lora, a relative of one of the victims, told The Guardian at the time.

“It gets you there early. At home, there are songs about it.”

Seth Kugel of The New York Times explained the route’s cultural significance when he wrote in its aftermath: “For many Dominicans in New York, these journeys home are the defining metaphor of their complex push-pull relationship with their homeland; they embody, vividly and poignantly, the tug between their current lives and their former selves.”

Reflecting on the disaster again this week, New York Democratic representative Adriano Espaillat, the first Dominican-American elected to Congress, said in a statement: “The tragedy continues to have a lasting impact on the loved ones left behind and our community.

“No matter how many anniversaries pass us by, we must never forget the magnitude of this loss and the impact it will forever have on the lives of countless families across the country.”

Mr Espaillat will introduce a congressional resolution on Friday “to ensure the memories of every single victim and their surviving family members are not forgotten” and says the incident remains “a visceral wound” for his community, who erected a memorial to the dead at the crash site in Belle Harbour designed by local artist Freddy Rodriguez.

For some Dominican-New Yorkers, the memory of the haste with which the mainstream media moved on from the story once the terror angle had been disproved remains a source of chagrin.

The wreckage of American Airlines Flight 587 burns in the Rockaway neighborhood of Queens, New York City, on 12 November 2001

“With 9/11, all New Yorkers and Americans went through grief and trauma together,” Ramona Hernandez, director of the Dominican Studies Institute at the City College of New York, told NBC News.

“Then the Dominican community experienced an additional, large-scale catastrophe. It was very intense. Over 200 lives lost in just 2 1/2 minutes; that is truly unbelievable to comprehend.”

For anyone who lost loved ones that day, their grief is a wound that never heals.

Cid Wilson, now president and CEO of the Hispanic Association on Corporate Responsibility, lost his dear friend Felix Sanchez in the crash and vivdly recalls gathering at the deceased’s mother’s apartment on the day, telling NBC: “We were waiting and waiting and waiting... just praying for any possibility that maybe he missed the flight or took another flight.”

Some good did at least come from the unthinkable tragedy of Flight 587, in that it inspired life-saving reforms to pilot training protocol and prompted Airbus to make a series of technical improvements to its planes in order to ensure the same disaster could not be repeated.

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