Smoke, rubble and bodies on 131st Street. For Belle Harbor, the trauma is never-ending

The Crash Scene

David Usborne,New York
Tuesday 13 November 2001 01:00
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Tom Mulvihill, a retired New York police officer, was at 9am Mass at the Francis De Sales church in Belle Harbor when he heard the bang. "I thought it was an earth tremor,"' he said. Others in the congregation thought a boiler had blown.

"Then we heard this woman outside the church screaming that the church school was on fire. All the men ran out of the church and we headed to the school," Mr Mulvihll said. "There was smoke and flames, and houses on fire."

It was in their blood to run and see what the trouble was because this narrow peninsular on the Atlantic is heavily populated with fire and police officers from New York city, both active and retired. And everyone has been on alert here anyway. When hijackers destroyed the World Trade Centre two months ago, Belle Harbor lost 75 people.

The school was not touched yesterday. What Mr Mulvihll and his friends found was a charred and burning crater in their neighbourhood just beyond the school. They understood when they reached the Texaco garage. "There was a huge part of a plane leaning against the gas truck and we just yelled to everyone to get out of there."

If New York City was dazed yesterday, contemplating scenes of carnage once again right in its midst, in Belle Harbor there was numb shock. "I hate to say it, but it looks like the World Trade Centre," said Audrey Pfeffer, one of the first people to reach the scene and a member of the State Assembly. "It was smoke and rubble and firemen on the rubble."

And, again, bodies. Bodies lying down the length of 131st Street. "Frankly, they had fallen from the sky – that was the really horrible thing," said Anthony Weiner, a US congressman. He couldn't bring himself to describe the corpses of the passengers directly. "The bodies were burned to a crisp, they looked like tar," said another witness at the scene.

Mr Weiner had been in the neighbourhood to attend a memorial service at the De Sales church. There has been one at the church almost every day for the past two months. There will have to be many more now.

"This is just a mammoth aftershock after the earthquake of 11 September," Mr Weiner said after visiting the site of the impact. "Just as people were returning to some kind of normalcy here, there is catastrophe again."

The echoes from the twin tours disaster were deafening, the phone lines were dead again, the Mayor of New York Rudolph Giuliani was on the scene again, dressed in an emergency services jacket and baseball cap, talking to the media, conferring with city officials and touring the scene. Rudy wearing the same grim, but focused, expression.

And the emergency response was instant. Within minutes of the American Airlines plane hitting the ground here, ambulances, fire engines and police cars were pouring into the area. For scores of fire fighters however, the trip to the site was tragically short. They only had to come out of their front porches and walk down their street.

The area of devastation was relatively limited. The houses that were incinerated – about 12 in all – were really just in one neighbourhood block. Those not destroyed had windows blow out. Aluminium siding – a favourite cladding for houses in suburban areas like this one – had melted and become twisted. A fireman carried a mattress out from the rubble; it was only springs.

One of the aeroplane's engines evidently fell a little earlier in its descent. It had come down in the back garden of 414 Beech 128th Street. At noon it was still lying there, lodged between the back of the house, its small garage and a modest speedboat. The fan from the engine was visible from the street as well as the web of pipelines wrapped around the engine's blackened casing.

The main house was intact, though with all its windows blown out, and the family had escaped. The house had been just like any other in the neighbourhood until 9.17am yesterday. A stuffed scarecrow made of straw and a bedsheet was propped on its front steps, left over from Halloween. On the small patch of grass out in the front garden stood a gnome holding an American flag, presumably placed there after 11 September.

This is the difference from two months ago. This is not the financial district of Manhattan but a family neighbourhood. "When people move to Belle Harbor, they usually stay for the next 60 years," said John Cunneen who lives five roads from the crash site. Houses are known here not by their street numbers but by the name of the family inside. Often they are Irish or Italian. Some houses keep those names even after the families have left.

Nobody could say what happened on board that plane. Everyone was asking, of course. Was it mechanical or was it the evil fruit of another terrorist plan. Either way, for everyone it was hard.

"That this should happen now is really, really difficult to take," said Mr Cunneen. He was speaking beside the petrol tanker that was struck by the plane. Bits of metal from the aircraft, painted in the same green you see inside the fuselage, were lodged in its rear bumper.

They are used to aircraft here and the noise they make. Another who heard the crash happen and felt the tremor in her house just sighed at first and thought: Concorde. "We even have plans for what happens when a plane comes down but we never thought it would actually happen,'' said Ms Pfeffer.

"Everyone is in shock," she said. "Everyone in the community is just saying 'My God not again'." She was standing by the De Sales church, a facemask around her neck. The smell of smoke was familiar but it was more acrid than that from ground zero. Just two streets away, aircraft fuel was still burning.

"There were just piles of debris and sheer incineration," commented Glenn Riddell, a retired officer of the courts. "It just brings back all those memories. Here is an aeroplane crashing into some buildings and we don't know why. It really shakes you up. I saw this tree there and it was nothing anymore – just a charred trunk."

They have already been grieving in this neighbourhood for the many who died on 11 September. Among them were firemen and police officers who rushed to the twin towers to give help only to be crushed themselves. Others, however, had worked at the World Trade Centre. "We had a lot of lads around here in Cantor Fitzgerald," Mr Cunneen noted, referring to the brokerage house that lost more than 600 employees on the day of the attacks.

Belle Harbor, on the southern edge of Queens where it meets the ocean, is on the Rockaway Beach Peninsular. It is mostly a blue-collar area and tight-knit. In some ways it mirrors the community that used to work in the World Trade Centre. There was little pretension about the people who worked in the towers. And there is little pretension in the Rockaway area of New York city. Now, they are both sites of awful grieving.

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