Those affected by the 2001 crash of American Airlines Flight 587 in Belle Harbor will gather Saturday to remember those killed in the accident, and some residents are speaking out ahead of the anniversary. NY1’s Ruschell Boone filed the following report.
It may not look like it at first glance, but Queens’ Belle Harbor is where American Airlines Flight 587 went down. The only recognition is a small plaque that marks the spot, but the memory is still vivid for some.
“The thing I remember the most is just this black fog of smoke, the smell of aviation fuel,” said Jonathan Gaska, district manager of Community Board 14.
Through an interpreter, Nicky Bollanos said his landscaping crew was almost killed.
“They were cutting grass and they look to the sky and they saw the plane on fire, and when it came down they ran for their lives,” said Bollanos.
Flight 587 took off from JFK on its way to the Dominican Republic when it crashed on the corner of 131st Street and Newport Avenue.
“An engine from the plane skidded down 129th Street and landed about 10 feet from a gasoline pump,” said Gaska.
All told, 251 passengers, nine crew members and five people on the ground were killed. At first, many people thought they were victims of another terror attack because it came just two months after two planes crashed into the World Trade Center.
“People were saying that they saw the plane coming in as though they were attacking Rockaway. Peoples’ imaginations were running wild,” said John Lepore, president of the Rockaway Chamber of Commerce.
Federal investigators ruled the plane's tail broke off due to overuse of the rudder in the wake of turbulence from another flight.
Residents who didn't want to remember that traumatic day resisted having a memorial at the crash site, and for years that put them at odds with some of the victims' family members, most of them from the Dominican community in Washington Heights.
“The community really wasn't resistant to a memorial, it was resistant to having it in the neighborhood where it happened,” said Gaska.
“The memories for the families who lost loved ones, who had to walk past these streets and re-live that trauma everyday was just too much,” said Lepore.
In the end, the city built a memorial 15 blocks away on 116th Street and the boardwalk. That memorial site is where the survivors and victims’ family members will gather on Saturday, as they have in previous years, to remember those lost.