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Crews Treat New York Plane Disaster

Aired November 12, 2001 - 10:30   ET


PAULA ZAHN, CNN ANCHOR: Peter Viles, let's rejoin you. Unfortunately, I couldn't finish that interview with the firefighter. Did he tell you anything else about what they're encountering out there?

PETER VILES, CNN CORRESPONDENT: I don't know if you got this on the air, but he said they believe this fire is under control, but he went on to say this is the smallest of several fire in the Rockaways right now.

As I can see it in front of me -- it's about 40 feet in front of me -- it is understand control. There is some smoke coming from this boat that is parked in the driveway. But they're working on the house, and there's no smoke from the house itself, Paula.

ZAHN: Peter, I just want to clear up some of the confusion here. We had an eyewitness who was getting off on an exit about five miles from the crash site. He is absolutely convinced that he saw fire coming from the left side of the jet. Another witness says it was the right side. Have you talked to anybody else who could tell which of those two facts is true?

VILES: Can't shed any light on that, Paula, other than to say the firefighters believe a portion of one of the engines did fall here, on 128th Street.

And this particular fire is under control. I would say maybe two dozen firefighters here. As the mayor pointed out, a lot of them didn't have far to come, because a lot of firefighters do live in the Rockaways. We spoke to the volunteer fire captain, who was volunteering here and says this fire is under control.

ZAHN: And in one of the oddies, Peter, your eyewitness, the firefighter, descried that part of this engine broke off into a boat that was sitting in a garage of this home that later developed in flames.

VILES: It's sitting in the driveway of the house. I'm looking at it now. It's tilted about 45 degrees to the side. He believes the engine landed in the boat. Then a fire broke out that did spread to the house, which is about three feet from the boat. It's a narrow driveway with a boat at the end of it. It's a very handsome house, a Queen Anne house of three storeys. It doe appear the fire in the house has been contained. We have conflicting reports whether or not the family was in the house, but every reports says the family that lives in this house is safe right now.

ZAHN: Peter, can you tell us how far the other crash site is from the area where you are standing, where the engine apparently broke off and landed in this boat?

VILES: The bigger fire is about four blocks from here, a quarter of a mile from here. But these are all narrow streets, and you can't see very far in any one direction. I see a lot of smoke at the southern end of this street, and there's definitely more commotion down is there -- around the corner from there would be where the bigger fire is. I can't tell you exactly how many fires there are, other than this is a smaller one.

ZAHN: Peter, as you hang on, I just wanted to repeat that the mayor said that the bridges and tunnels coming in and out of New York City will be closed down at least for the next hour or two, as a precaution. We've learned that there's a partial lockdown at the U.N.; of course, a number of significant meetings were supposed to take place the United Security Council, among other meetings, a critical meeting of six countries trying to determine the fate of Afghanistan and who might ultimately rule it.

Peter, are you continuing to hear the F-15s overhead. I've been hearing them about every six minutes or so?

VILES: They are being drowned out, if they're up there, by helicopters. There are a lot of helicopters up there. I'm looking at a New York City police helicopter up there right now. As I drove down here, along the Belt Parkway, around the outside of Brooklyn, you could see Coast Guard cutters speeding to the scene.

You talked about the bridges being closed. They were in the process of closing the main bridge to the Rockaways when I got here. But there was a heavy stream of emergency vehicles coming across that bridge; they asked for them to come from all over New York City, and they were coming at heavy clip when I got here. So I imagine if the bridges are closed, they will leave them open to the emergency drivers.

ZAHN: Peter, we are going to leave you for a moment, to catch up with Cinny Kennard and Tom Rodburg (ph), who joins us on the telephone. They were getting ready to get on a plane.

Cinny and Tom, can you hear me?

CINNY KENNARD, WITNESS: We can, Paul. Go ahead.

ZAHN: What did you see?

KENNARD: As you would imagine -- let me bring you up to date. This has unnerved just about everyone in this airport terminal this morning. Hundreds of passengers are on cell phones calling family members. One person has a radio, and concerned passengers are gathering around to listen. Right now, much of the smoke that we initially saw, the black plume of smoke, has dissipated consistent with what Peter is said. But fighter jets continue to patrol above.

Tom Rodburg (ph) was also with me, getting ready to board a flight to Los Angeles, and he actually saw. So I am going to hand the phone to him to speak.

ZAHN: Tom.


ZAHN: Good morning. Tell us what you saw. You were on your way to L.A. and your flight was canceled. What did you see?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We were sitting in the boarding area when I looked up and saw the plane in pretty much a vertical descent, going nose first -- maybe a slight degree of angle, but pretty much going straight in. On impact, there was a huge ball of flame immediately followed with a lot of black smoke. And it's now dissipated. But that's pretty much what we saw.

Now my wife indicated to me -- I jumped up -- as the plane she saw a white puff of smoke up in the sky. Then I also remember seeing what appeared to be some fragments of aircraft falling down behind it, floating -- it almost looked like exploding -- down. We don't have a clue what that might have been.

ZAHN: Tom, your observations are powerful here because we have spoken with two eyewitnesses. One was a man who was five miles from the crash site. He was getting off the exit on the Cross Bay Bridge. He distinctly saw fire from the left engine of the plane. And another eyewitness described, he said, falling debris from the other side of the plane.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I saw no smoke on the falling aircraft. It looked smokeless to me going in. It is a very disturbing thing to watch.

ZAHN: I know you and Cinny are experienced travelers. What was the immediate reaction to those of you in the boarding room that saw this?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I don't think other people than my wife and I jumped up and saw it. Very few people noticed it until the smoke started coming out. And then people are going, What's this? But I knew immediately what had happened.

ZAHN: We appreciate your telling us what you saw.

Tom, if you would kind enough to hand phone back to Cinny, I will pause until she picks up the phone.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Will do. Thank you.

KENNARD: Paula, one other thing that was interesting this morning, different from flying a couple of days ago, was security seemed to be tighter. Checking passengers bags, but also asking passengers to take off coats and not wear coats through the security system, and instead let them go through the scanner. There was tight security here this morning.

ZAHN: Cinny, I just wanted to stop you for a second. We have just learned that President Bush has postponed a meeting that he was supposed to have with American reporters, to monitor the situation. This is a time when the United Nations is in a partial lockdown.

If I'm not mistaken, I think we heard yet another F-15 fly overhead.

Cinny, I want to pick up our conversation, but just remind people that these F-15s are part of what we are told by the Pentagon is routine surveillance, Bob Franken telling earlier that the Pentagon is saying there are no reports of any irregularities on this plane, no distress calls before this Airbus A300 went down, a plane that was taking off from JFK; it was headed to Santo Domingo, in the Dominican Republic.

Cinny, once again, this city endured so much, and people are in such a state of shock over what happened on September 11. Are there people there that said even thought we don't know what caused this, oh no, not again?

KENNARD: Absolutely. That was exactly the sentiment. At first, people began to look at this black plume of smoke out the window and preferred to think it was a fire until someone mentioned a plane going down. The look of shock, and even sadness, to some degree, in their faces started to spread through the terminal. People immediately got on cell phones, Paula, like clockwork, calling family members, saying I'm OK, tell Mom I'm Okay. You heard that going right through the terminal. Just about everybody who had a cell phone. People went to computer terminals and started writing e-mails to people, to let them know they were OK. There was very quick reaction on that front.

Even the airline employees, you saw a look on their faces. They grabbed manuals right away, airline schedules, to try to determine exactly what flight it was that was down burning in the neighborhood just a couple of miles from here.

It was solemn. It wasn't an energized shock. It was a very solemn shock. And it was exactly what you said, Paula: Oh, no, not again.

ZAHN: Cinny, please stand by. We will come back to you in the hours to come.

I will go back to my colleague Bill Hemmer.

Just a quick little news note from New York. There were some key meetings that were supposed to take place today at the United Nations Security Council. You had 6 countries: Iran, Pakistan, China, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, and Tajikistan meeting to talk about what a potential government might look like in Afghanistan if the Taliban falls. We are now told the United Nations is in a partial lockdown, the mayor confirming that all the area airports are closed -- JFK, LaGuardia, and Newark International, in New Jersey -- and the tunnels and bridges. But the mayor, Bill, just made it clear that the bridges and tunnels were closed as a precaution.

The FAA is saying in one report that they were ruling out terrorism. The latest advisory is saying they can't rule anything out. The details are just too sketchy at this point -- Bill

BILL HEMMER, CNN ANCHOR: Paula, just to recap what we know. The facts on the ground are that American Airlines Flight 587, an Airbus 300 en route from JFK this morning, bound for Santo Domingo in the Dominican Republic -- 246 people on board, plus nine crew members. According to, the Internet location we were talking about 20 minutes ago, the estimate that plane left about 9:15 a.m. on a departure, and at 9:16 it lost contact. So clearly, right after that plane got in the air, it was having difficulty.

The Airbus 300 is a quite popular plane. It is built by a consortium of companies, primarily in Europe. There are two engines on board, one wing each. Two aisles inside. The length you see and passenger capacity 266. So the number we have of passengers is right near capacity. It was not quite entirely full, but quite close to it. Two cockpit crew members on board in the service first began in the early 1970s.

We are told also that American Airlines uses this type of aircraft quite frequently to shuttle its service to Central and South America. And quite clearly that would give us an indication, as we look at the route from JFK to Santo Domingo that this would be another popular route for American Airlines to fly.

That's about all the facts we have right now, based on the numbers, but we did hear a bit more from the mayor of New York City a short time ago, saying that the bridges and tunnels closed for at least a few hours anyway. He called this, to use Rudy Giuliani's words, a precaution for the time being. He also said the city is on a higher state of alert. And he also said, giving his city its due, that no city is better prepared, given its fire force and its police force.

Jason Carroll is indicating about a dozen buildings affected. He says that most of these building are homes. We do know there are businesses in the area, but according to Jason and the eyes on the ground we have right now, most of the buildings affected are homes in the area of Rockaway. That's in Queens.

And as the reports continue to come in, now through WABC, it is a tough, tough scene for New Yorkers and a number of people who are watching this scene unfold right now.

American Airlines Flight 587 left a short time ago, about 90 minutes ago, and according to the reports we have also this plane was delayed a little bit. The original scheduled takeoff time was 8:40. We don't know why it was delayed, but it was delayed about 35 minutes, leaving right around 9:15 a.m. Eastern time. In total, 246 on board plus nine crew members -- Paula.

ZAHN: Bill, as you were speaking, we have just gotten a number from American Airlines for families to call about their loved one from Flight 587. That number -- and I will say this a couple of times, if you need to jot this down -- 1-800-245-0999 -- 1-800-245-0999. The Port Authority is confirming that this plane could carry 275 passengers in some configuration; it actually carried 245 passengers and nine crew members.

Bill was confirming that that plane was originally supposed to take off from JFK International about 8:40. We are not sure why the plane delayed, but it didn't end up taking off until about 9:17.

The most curious part of the story so far is the fact the mayor confirmed there are two separate crash sites about four blocks apart, one area where the plane engine went down. Oddly enough, fragments of that engine landed in a boat that was parked in front of a home. Of course, the boat went up in flames and the garage and the home, in addition to 11 other structures, we are told.

Some 44 fire trucks are on the scene, some 200 firefighters in all. The mayor reminds us this area where the plane went down is in the Rockaway section of Queens, an area that was hard hit by the September 11 attacks. This, in fact, is where a number of the firefighters and Port Authority officers came from who lost their lives that day. But he wanted to make it clear to America that no city is better prepared to deal with the aftermath of this plane crash.

Let's go to Richard Roth, who is standing by.

Richard, we have been destroying, for the last 45 minutes or so, this partial lockdown due to this plane crash. What does that mean about cars and pedestrians allowed to enter that area surrounding the U.N.? Is that off limits?

RICHARD ROTH, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Right now, no cars, no pedestrian are allowed into the U.N. compound. This is a very busy place right now, the United Nations holding its high-level General Assembly debate. We are told that the French foreign minister, (INAUDIBLE), is locked out of the building, and he is due to speak at a nuclear conference here.

Now you could leave the building, but First Avenue, which you see over my shoulder, is normally a frozen zone due to security since the terrorist attacks. You don's see any limousines; usually, you see sirens escorting all of these presidents and prime ministers. Now nobody can get into the United Nations, no matter how high ranking you are.

It's also quite chilling. You had a very loud loudspeaker announcement throughout the building announcing that the U.S. government has decided to close the airspace over New York.

And as a precautionary measure, they are locking people out of the building, but they are not evacuating. But in this house of peace, where the debate is raging here about trying to improve the world, it's kind of scary when you hear this in a huge crowd of diplomats, U.N. staff gathered around television sets, watching the developments in Queens with the plane crash.

The United Nations was threatened over a week ago, in a videotaped message from Osama bin Laden accusing the U.N. of being criminals in the bombing campaign over Afghanistan.

You can hear U.S. Jet warplanes overhead, because there's nothing else in the sky. You can hear that even though inside the U.N. compound. There is a very important Afghanistan meeting going on right now. U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell is in the basement of the building, meeting with the Iranian government and five other nations, as six other nations try to debate the future of a post- Taliban government there. A lot of activity here inside, but nobody else is coming in to join it.

ZAHN: Richard, I know no one is supposed to jump to any conclusions, and we know the U.N. has had evacuation drills since the September 11 attacks. Were you able to gauge any reaction to folks saying, Oh, not again, who maybe leapt to a conclusion that we can't really make right now.

ROTH: You see initial fear on the people's faces as they are watching the news of the plane crash in Queens. But the building has geared up for this. They have become kind of used to it. United Nations staff members, many of whom inside the building, have worked overseas in worse situations, in places such as Somalia and Bosnia, where they have literally been under attack -- it just comes as part of the job. But they haven't been used to having a threat come so close here to home.

Some people were upset with the evacuation drills. They felt that people weren't able to get out in time. There had been a rumor that perhaps they might evacuate, but right now, a U.N. spokesman says they're taking a middle-ground approach. There is no reason to believe it was related to terrorism. It's all a precautionary measure. That is according to a U.N. spokesman.

ZAHN: Richard, as we speak, we want to take note of the Dow, which is down 130 points. We had Andy Serwer about to be loaded on the air saying there were some retail numbers that were not to be as good as expected. That may explain it. Who knows if the crash has an effect on the numbers right now.

ZAHN: Richard, we'd love to get back to you in a little bit. Thank you so much for that update.

We are getting probably the closest look in the wide shot of the crash site so far. But once again we have got to remind you you are looking at two different crash sites, the mayor confirming that the part of the jet engine that was severed off landed approximately four blocks away from the plane, which is considered the second crash site. A firefighter who joined us just about 15 minutes ago confirmed that they had the fire under control where the jet engine, oddly enough, landed in a boat parked in a driveway outside a home. That boat, of course, because of the fuel, caught on fire, as well as the adjoining garage and the home.

Jason Carroll is confirming, in all, we believe, 12 buildings on the ground are effected, he believes, at this point, most of them homes, but it's really hard to tell, because reporters haven't gotten inside that perimeter area.

Let's go to Kathleen Koch who is standing by -- oh, my goodness: This will give you the best idea yet of how part of this engine was severed off. I can't make out the boat in that picture. I don't know whether that engine had been removed from the boat so far. But one of our eyewitnesses who was getting off on an exit not far from crash side said he clearly saw the left-hand engine on fire. We have another eyewitness who said it was the other engine. Clearly, one engine appears to have been on fire.

Let me break away from what I say to go to Jason Carroll, who has some new information for us from the FBI -- Jason.

JASON CARROLL, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Paula, as we were standing out here, we saw Perry Mon (ph), the director of the New York office of the FBI. He was having a meeting with several members of the FBI. We were able to get just a little bit of information out of him. He said that in terms of what's happening with the investigation, we're looking to see if there was some sort of explosion. When pressed and we asked him about any other details regarding the crash, he said at this point it just happened and they're looking into everything.

At this point, what he is going to do is head over to JFK Airport, to finish up with the investigation over there.

Also, we've been talking about these various crash sites. As we were out here, we ran across another eyewitness, who showed us some videotape of what appeared to be part of fuselage, which had fallen near a gas station here in the area as well.

Just to tell you where I am standing now, I've moved one block over. I'm standing where all of the emergency vehicles and ambulances are lined up. At one point, a doctor ran by as we had an opportunity for a quick moment to ask him if he had heard anything about casualties or fatalities. He said, All I can tell you is I'm seeing a lot of smoke, and I've got to go. So that's what we were able to get out of him.

I know, as we are talking to witnesses, there seems to be some discrepancy if there was fire or explosion on the right or left side of the plane, but the common denominator is, from everyone that we're talking to, there was some sort of fire or explosion before that plane went down -- Paula.

ZAHN: Jason, that is abundantly clear. I've just tabulated. We've talked to at least four eyewitnesses who have said just that. The most convincing observations seemed to come from that man Tom Rodberg (ph), who joined us from JFK, who is getting ready to get on a flight to L.A. He said he clearly saw stuff falling off the side of the plane. So clearly, the FBI cannot discount these reports, even though there have been some discrepancies whether the explosion was seen on the left or the right side, right?

CARROLL: Absolutely, Paula. The FBI has confirmed that they are looking into the possibility that there was some sort explosion or fire before the plane went down. We have been able to confirm that with the FBI.

Again, its evident from what we are seeing out here. We've seen part of the engine fall. Apparently, part of the fuselage falling in another part. It's evident that the plane was falling apart before the crash.

ZAHN: Jason, we have had people on standby to the hospital where I'm told the injured would go if they were transferred there. Have you seen any signs of ambulances transporting anybody out of the area?

CARROLL: I have to tell you, Paula, I'm standing right in the spot where I can count at least eight ambulances lined up here on Rockaway Beach Boulevard. I haven't seen any people who were affected by this being brought in. I haven't seen anything so far.

ZAHN: I want to put up on the screen again a 1-800 number that American Airlines is providing for family members who might have had loved ones on that plane, Flight 587 on its way from JFK International to the Dominican Republic. That's 1-800-245-0999. We will leave that up on the screen.

Jason, the Port Authority is confirming that some 245 passengers were on the plane in addition to nine crew members. Jason, you heard the harrowing story of a woman who jumped off here second floor balcony who literally saw this plane come into the backyard behind her. What other kinds of stories have you heard from homeowners who either we're not too far from the jet engine where it was severed off or the larger crash site?

CARROLL: By far, Rosemary's story was the most dramatic. She was very upset, but she was able to describe what she saw from the second floor as the plane was coming down. She told me she felt very, very lucky. She was, obviously, very upset, tears coming down her eyes as she was talking, covering her face from the acrid smell of the smoke -- very dramatic, especially in lieu of what's happened.

I'm sure you understand more than anyone, being here in New York, how everyone is already tense. So when something like this happens, it adds to the level of tension that was already there.

What I can tell you from being out here is the firefighters are being very diligent in their work, being very professional, they are trying to find out if there any survivors from the plane crash and trying to find out if anyone was hurt on the ground.

ZAHN: Jason, please stand by.

I want to check in with Miles O'Brien, who joins us from Atlanta. But before I do that, Miles, I wanted to repeat something that Bill Shuman of the Federal Aviation Administration is saying, that there is no immediate indication of what caused this crash, which came two months and one day after the two hijacked airliners brought down the World Trade Center.

Miles, tell us what you know at this juncture.

MILES O'BRIEN, CNN ANCHOR: Paula, if you recall back to September 11, an unprecedented action was taken about this time during the day by the Federal Aviation Administration. What they did was they grounded every single aircraft over U.S. over the continental United States, and it happened within about 90 minutes after it become apparent what was going on on September 11.

I want to point out that this is live radar return of the entire continental United States right now. There are currently 4,371 planes flying over the United States; that is a standard morning. So what that should tell you is the FAA has not made any determination that this might be something that is part of a coordinated, synchronized attack.

Let's just zoom in quickly on New York for a moment and give you a sense of what's going on there. The airports there are closed; not a lot of traffic to report in and around the New York area. But that's a standard kind of thing in the wake of an accident of this nature nevertheless.

That's one little shred of evidence that would lead us to believe that perhaps this is some sort of isolated thing, certainly nothing akin to September 11.

Let's take a look at this stunning video, quite frankly, of that sheared engine, separate from the majority of the aircraft. Obviously, this is a very, very significant clue if you're a crash investigator. There are a lot of scenarios we could run through.

Joining me on the phone to help me walk through the possibilities, if you will, is an airline captain, John Wylie, who's on the line with us.

John, thanks for being with us.


O'BRIEN: John, I know you can't see, because you're driving to us in your car right now, but what we are seeing is one of the engines of the Airbus A-300/600, of which American has about 35, had fallen off some distance from the actual impact of the main fuselage of the aircraft. Let's run through the scenarios. What would be number one in your list if you were an NTSB member responding to this?

WYLIE: Obviously, there has to be more than just the loss of the engine or failure of the engine. As an instructor, one of the things that we practice routinely on checks and checking pilots out is the ability to fly the airplane with the loss of thrust, and we have even had it demonstrated with the complete loss of the engine. In fact, sometimes we have had incidents where somebody has mentioned we lost the engine, and one person thinking they were talking about loss of thrust, when as in this case the engine has actually separated from the aircraft.

It really should not appreciably flying characteristics of the aircraft such that a crash should evolve from the loss of an engine. In fact, the engines are designed, in certain cases, to separate from the aircraft.

O'BRIEN: As we go through that scenario, a lot of people have a long memory about aviation accidents might remember a very stunning crash over Chicago, late '70s, involving an American DC-10; the engine fell off of that. It turns out afterwards that it wasn't attached properly to the wing. Would that be in the realm of possibility and speculation here?

WYLIE: More so rather than that question is to whether or not there was proper attachment would be why the crash evolved. In the DC-10 accident, there were some hydraulics involved, which some of the -- how shall we say -- leading edge part of the configuration of the wing changed, due to loss of hydraulics. Because of procedures that were taught at that time, which have been revised -- we always learn from accidents -- but because the procedures have been revised, up until that point, the pilots would have slowed the airplane up, and when they did in the case of the DC-10, eventually that wing that the engine had separated from stalled, and the airplane eventually crashed.

In this case, it's not so much the fact that the engine separated as to why the crew was unable to continue controlling the airplane.

O'BRIEN: Miles: One of things we have to consider here, which is worth going through, is the possibility, for whatever reason, that the aircraft might have been overstressed -- in other words, turned in an abrupt manner, a manner so abrupt that it exceeds the design tolerances of the aircraft. And one of the weak points would, in fact, be the engine. I guess that's relatively intuitive: You've got this heavy object hanging by a rather smaller appendage to the wing.

By the way, we're looking at some pictures, which you cannot see, John, showing some immediate aftermath of this crash, a fiery crash into the area near John F. Kennedy Airport. Many houses on fire.

Now, John, is it accurate to say that in a situation where you are overstressing an aircraft, an engine is one of the first things that might fall off?

WYLIE: Well, if you wanted to assert that, I wouldn't have any problem with it. The only problem is the likelihood that the crew is actually going to maneuver the aircraft so violently that that's going to happen, especially shortly after takeoff. I'm not exactly sure that you have enough energy on the airplane to be able to create that much force.

O'BRIEN: If there were a struggle -- and we know from the incident in Pennsylvania on September 11, there was a struggle on that aircraft, and there were pieces of that aircraft that fell off away from the primary crash site, would that lend more credence to that theory?

WYLIE: Again, it's a matter of energy state. An airplane that is in cruise has a great deal of mass, a great deal of inertia. So you can jerk around on the airplane and be able to create a significant force on the airplane. At low air speed, if you start, as we refer to it, honking on the airplane, you are going to run out of energy before you are able to create enough force really to tear the plane up.

These are airplanes that fly through thunderstorms occasionally, so I think the possibility that the aircraft was overstressed and that was the reason for the engine separating may be a bit of a stretch.

O'BRIEN: It is very early on here, and we don't want to get too far down the road.

John Wylie, thank you very much for shedding a little bit of light on it in this early stage. You continue your progress here towards CNN.

We will be hearing from John all throughout the day as we try to understand exactly what happened.




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