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American Airlines Flight 587 Crashes on Takeoff in Queens, New York

Aired November 12, 2001 - 11:02   ET


MILES O'BRIEN, CNN ANCHOR: We should point out that the skies over John F. Kennedy still are relatively vacant. As a matter of fact, that's a very light amount of traffic based on the information we have here from the realtime radar data. But nevertheless, we are told that John F. Kennedy Airport may be on the cusp of reopening. We will keep you advised on that as well -- Paula.

PAULA ZAHN, CNN ANCHOR: Miles, in fact, while you were speaking, they announced that they will allow for, correct me if I'm wrong, producers, incoming flights, is that correct?

O'BRIEN: I believe that...

ZAHN: Information has gone back and forth. Miles, also while you are speaking, advisory came through the Associated Press, saying the Bush administration says the FBI believes there was an explosion aboard the plane, and they are investigating its source. That is obviously something that they will continue to explore.

Miles, I'm going to take a second here to read some of what American Airlines is now saying. They will be holding a news conference just about 25 minutes from now, which we will be covering live. Permit me to read this statement. It says flight 587, an American Airlines Airbus 300 aircraft, on its way from New York Kennedy to Santa Domingo, crashed today, near Kennedy Airport. The preliminary passenger list indicates the aircraft carried 246 passengers and a crew of nine. American Airlines will not speculate as to the possible cause of the accident. At this point, no additional details may be confirmed.

Peter Viles, are you with me on the telephone?

He was in the are where the engine severed off and fell into that boat that was parked outside that home.

Peter, can you hear me?


We're in the backyard of the adjacent house. They are still fighting this fire. The engine is pretty stubborn. And every once in a while, a big lick of flame will pop up. There is a lot of smoke here. They are trying to take the boat apart. But our understanding is that the engine, or some portion of the engine, is still in this recreational boat that was parked in this driveway in this suburban neighborhood.

I'm going to put on, if I can, the next-door neighbor who basically has a fire in his backyard now that has melted a portion of his house. He is watching thee firefighters trying to put it out.

This is going to be Ron Hollander (ph), Paula.

RON HOLLANDER: How are you doing?

ZAHN: Hi, Ron.

Boy, I can't even begin to understand what you have seen this morning. The best you can to describe to us what happened around 9:17 and from that point on.

HOLLANDER: I just heard a very, very loud noise, bang, and it woke me up, and we all got out, me and my son, we looked outside, and there was this engine in the backyard about 20 feet away from me, and it was on fire. And that was it. We just got out of the house. Nobody got hurt.

ZAHN: Did you lose your home?

HOLLANDER: No, the house next door is pretty well -- it's standing, but it's probably pretty totalled.

ZAHN: Another woman who must have been two houses down from you described to us the fireball that impacted her home. Did you feel the heat?

HOLLANDER: Yes, we felt the heat from the fire, but we only reacted after we heard the noise. We didn't see anything come down.

ZAHN: Describe to us what the scene was like once people realized that this was a plane.

HOLLANDER: Everyone was out in the street with their kids. It was a holiday, Veteran's Day, a lot of people are off.

ZAHN: And was there any sense of panic?

HOLLANDER: No, just confusion.

ZAHN: And you -- Ron, I don't know where you are standing right now, but Jason Carroll was reporting there were a number of ambulances on standby, but he had yet to see any of them leave the scene.

HOLLANDER: Nobody got hurt here.

ZAHN: No one got hurt.


ZAHN: I just saw in one of these live shots, some women who appear to be carrying a bunch of medical supplies. Describe us to the amount of personnel you see around.

HOLLANDER: Listen, listen, listen, listen, I can't go through these clusters with you right now, all right.

ZAHN: OK, I understand that. You have seen a lot and heard too much, and we really appreciate you taking time.

All right, Peter, I understand the amount of stress this gentleman is under. Unfortunately, his kids had to witness this.

VILES: The fire is under control, but it is very close to the man's house that you just talked to. It's about four feet from his house, and he's standing here watching it, and the priority is to get the engine fire out, and he is under some stress. There are portions of his house that have literally melted here. The aluminum siding is sort of dripping off the side of the house.

ZAHN: Peter, I know you can't see what I'm seeing right now, but these are pictures taken by WABC, which had been shortly after the crash, which showed the building completely enveloped in flames. I want Ron to understand, please thank him for joining us. I understand what a challenge it is to watch your home being threatened and talking to a reporter at the same time. Please thank him for his time. And, Peter, as soon as you have eyewitness accounts, we will go back to you as well.

VILES: One thing, Paula, there is a police officer here. I asked, how many fires are burning now in Rockaway? He said Four. Now he would not be in a position to be coordinating the response to these fires. But this is a New York Police officer. He believes from what he heard on radio traffic, there are four fires burning in this neighborhood right now, Paula.

ZAHN: Well, yes, Peter, I guess it's a matter of how the debris fell down. The mayor has been confirming there are two sites, the site where the engine fell, where you are not far from and then the primary crash site. Have you seen any ambulances leave the area?

VILES: I have not, no. This is not -- we're about four blocks from the larger fire. And right now, what's interesting, we heard Miles talking about the engine, how important this will all be. We believe that the engine or some portion is here in this backyard, and still, no federal officials on the site. Right now, this is a local effort here. You have firefighters, volunteer firefighters, a lot of whom live in the neighborhood and police officers here. But as of yet, no federal officials, who will eventually take this investigation over and try to figure out exactly what happened with this engine.

And, Peter, as you were doing the report, the Associated Press is reporting, once again, that the FBI believes there was an explosion on board the plane and they are now investigating its source.

Peter, thanks so much.

For the latest on the investigation, let's turn to Kathleen Koch to bring us up to date on what she's learned from D.C. Good morning, Kathleen.


Here in Washington, we were speaking obviously with both the National Transportation Safety Board and also with the Federal Aviation Administration. And Ted Mepakuwitz (ph), who is a spokesman for the National Transportation Safety Board, says at this point, they are investigating this incident, handling it as an accident. They are assembling a team of investigators here in Washington, and they should be leaving in a couple of hours. He says, at this point, that the NTSB will be lead investigators on this incident.

The Federal Aviation Administration obviously is also looking into what exactly has happened here leading up to this. They're telling us that flight 587 departed from New York's JFK Airport from runway 31 left, heading to the northwest, making a roughly 310-degree turn.

Now the FAA is saying that it has no information as it whether or not there was an explosion onboard the aircraft. Also, they say they do not know if the pilot made any calls to the control tower, to air traffic controllers, that were other than routine.

At this point, what Bill Schumann (ph), a spokesman for the FAA, is saying, that they are considering perhaps expanding the closures, a ground stop which now expand out from JFK at a radius of about 25 miles. The reason they are looking at it he said of course is in light of what happened on September 11th, that they are considering all of the possibilities.

Now I heard you report just a few minutes ago that they may open some of the airports in the New York area to incoming flights. And, Paula, the reason for that might be that 11:00 a.m. is roughly the rush hour at New York's JFK Airport for incoming international flights. You've got all these flights lined up over the Atlantic Ocean with essentially nowhere to go at this point. So that could be what's behind that -- Paula.

ZAHN: And how much credence are your sources giving to this Associated Press report -- and I will just read it right off this news alert -- that Bush administration officials saying the FBI believes there was an explosion aboard the plane, and they are investigating its source. I know you said the FAA and the NTSB are looking at this as an accident. But can you shed the light on the associated press report?

KOCH: Well, at this point, no one is telling us anything about a potential explosion. I have heard people earlier today discussing the issue of bags, that perhaps went into the belly of that plane. And could potentially a bomb been onboard that plane that. That obviously is one of many, many possibilities. Here, we are not speculating on what it might have been.

Now the FAA tells us that Kennedy airport is one of a number of airports in the U.S., roughly 40, 45, which have these explosive- detection systems in place, that can be used to screen the luggage which goes into the belly of a plane. However, on an international flight like this one, to Santo Domingo, the only requirement is that there is bag matching. And, Paula, what that is, is that every single passengers who checks a bag on to the plane also has to board that plane. That's a security measure.

Based on the assumption that someone would not check a bag on to a plane with an explosive in it, and board that plane, obviously being killed in a potential explosion, would occur. The aviation industry has opposed making bag matching be into place for all domestic flights. At this point, it is only required on international flights. U.S. airlines have alleged, especially in these days and times, doesn't give you a high degree of protection from suicide terrorists -- Paula.

ZAHN: Kathleen, while I have you on the phone, I wanted to make notice of something Jason Carroll reported. He actually spoke with an FBI field officer out there at the site who was trying to make sense of the eyewitness reports he has heard. And you probably heard some of the people I interviewed this morning. We got five eyewitnesses to describe what they saw as an explosion coming, most of them believed from the right wing. We had one eyewitness absolutely convinced it was the left wing. But they certainly, I guess at this juncture, although they didn't answer the question directly, aren't dismissing the reports.

KOCH: No, they are not dismissing those reports, and I think we have a number of aviation experts on standby, actually some of them here in the studio with me, who can probably shed more light on that than I can at this point.

ZAHN: All right, let's check back in -- thank you, Kathleen -- with Jason Carroll, who was one of the first reporters on-site at the location.

Jason, where are you right now?

JASON CARROLL, CNN ANCHOR: Paula, I can tell you I'm standing at about 133rd Street and Rockaway Beach Boulevard. This is just about one block from where the accident happened. It's tough to tell from where I am right here, but if you look beyond these homes that you see here, right behind those homes, that is where the major portion of the plane went down, and that is where the rescue efforts are focussed at this point. There are hundreds, literally hundreds of firefighters, paramedics, police officers, who are out here, residents who live in the neighborhood, at this point, who are trying to get some information, trying to figure out exactly what would happen.

I'm going to bring in an eyewitness right now. This is Ethan Moses (ph). Ethan, why don't you tell me what you saw?

ETHAN MOSES: I was pushing my client (ph), coming down Beach 139 Street. I saw the plane, just taking off from Kennedy, was in a climbing position. I saw a fire under the left side of the engine, and then suddenly I saw debris start falling from the plane. And then the left side engine on the wing, like it separated from the plane. And the plane...

ZAHN: All right, we just lost Jason Carroll, which is highly understandable, given what we are dealing with out there at the site.

The most recent report from a firefighter involved in rescue efforts out there is that we are looking at four separate fires. Mayor Giuliani confirming earlier this morning that we were looking at two sites, one where the engine was severed off and landed in that boat that was sitting in the driveway outside the home that later was enveloped in flames, and then what we believe to be a secondary crash site.

Now a fire official who was speaking with Jason Carroll confirming he believes you are now looking at four separate sites.

Let's check in with Major Garrett who joins us from the White House.

Major, we haven't heard a whole lot from the White House today. When was the president alerted to this crash?

MAJOR GARRETT, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Paula, we do not have an exact time for when the president was notified. We do course know that he was notified. He's been meeting with his advisers at the White House to try to figure out exactly what happened in this plane crash. Senior administration officials tell CNN that the FBI is trying to find out the source of that explosion on the American Airlines flight. That's about as much as we know for a fact about what is going on here at the White House.

This was a holiday -- this is a holiday, of course. Not too many white house officials are actually here at work. Some were coming in. The White House is in much of an information gathering mode, as is the Department of Transportation. A senior official there telling CNN no determination has been made there as to whether or not this was an accident, a mechanical failure or an act of terrorism. They are still trying to work those details out.

Since 9/11, the Department of Transportation has set up an emergency response team that sort of gathers information, and sort of goes to the source, mobilizes everyone within the Department of Transportation to find out as much information as it possibly can and get it quickly here to the White House and all of the relevant agencies. That work is going on, as we speak. There is no word yet from the president, from the White House, as to whether or not the president will address the situation in any public way today. He had no public events on his schedule today. He was to meet privately this afternoon with former South African President Nelson Mandela. No word as to whether or not that was still on his schedule.

Also we are told that he was to have some interviews with Russian and U.S. news personnel about his upcoming summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin. We have been told that those interviews have been postponed. But clearly, the White House is in information- gathering mode and not willing to put out any official word about the situation, until they have a very firm grasp on exactly what happened -- Paula.

ZAHN: Major, it's interesting that you should say that the administration is looking into the source of the explosion. Does that mean they are confirming that there indeed was an explosion aboard that plane before it crashed?

GARRETT: Paula, I think we should be very careful about this. Clearly on our air and through other sources, there have been eyewitness accounts testifying to an explosion. The White House wants to see if in fact those are true and are investigating the possible source of that. It would be from the White House and the government's point of view irresponsible to ignore eyewitness accounts of this nature.

But senior administration officials are telling CNN they are investigating that, trying to find out if in fact these eyewitness accounts, being there are so many, are in fact representative of what happened, and if in fact there was an explosion, of course, to try to find out the source of it. But again, a senior transportation official telling us that there is no determination whatsoever at this point as to whether or not there was an accident, a mechanical failure or act of terrorism behind this crash -- Paula.

ZAHN: But as Kathleen Koch just reported, until they understand otherwise, the FAA and the NTSB investigators will look at this as an accident.

Major, thanks so much for that update.

We'll be coming back to you shortly.

Right now, on the phone though, we have CNN correspondent Peter Viles, who has just caught up with a police -- was it a police department official, Peter? Firefighter.

VILES: He is a volunteer fire chief, and one of the first battalions to arrive here on the scene, fighting the fire, where we believe the engine or a portion of it fell on 128th Street. We had a conversation with him earlier, Paula, you did, that was cut off. I want to bring him back now. This is chief Truden (ph), just to update us on the fire, where we believe the engine is still burning.


Hi, Paula. How are you doing?

ZAHN: Thank you for joining us. I'm sorry, I'm okay. it's really tough to look at this video, and you have been looking at it all morning.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It's horrible to think this could happen again.

ZAHN: I know we had to cut you off earlier because of a conference we needed hit. Why don't we go back to the beginning of when you were called to the scene, what you saw and what's going on now.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: OK, basically, like I said, we are from the Broad Channel (ph) Volunteer Fire Department. We are responding on mutual aid to the city fire department. We are driving into the scene. We came across an engine company from the city fire department that was operating at a working fire that involved a three-story private house that was fully involved, with a jet engine sticking out the back of it. It extended into a garage, a boat, a vehicle, and you know, it was a pretty wild scene.

ZAHN: And describe to us the number of volunteers that are on the scene, in addition to what I'm told is 200 other firefighters who were called in this level-one alert.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I'm sure there are hundreds of city firefighters here. I have from my department about two dozen volunteer firefighters. I know there are other volunteer units here from Rockaway Point, Breezy Point, that are -- you know, they are there from the peninsula of Rockaway. They are also operating.

ZAHN: Chief Truden, do you believe -- we are looking at some file footage now, but do you believe that the -- I mean, some fuel is still leaking in that area where the jet engine is found. But is that fire contained? We are looking at a small part of the wreckage, and I can't really relate that to where the original crash site was.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Right, we are at a house. The house is white in color, Beach and 128th Streets. But the fire inside the house is pretty much contained. It's extinguished. Right now, we just have the boat and the jet engine smoldering very slightly. We pretty much have it contained. We just have to keep pouring foam and water on it, so it doesn't flare up, because there is a lot of jet fuel in the rear yard of this house.

ZAHN: Chief, one fire department police official, or police official indicated to Jason Carroll, that you might be looking at four separate sites now? Is that your understanding, or is still just two?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I have no idea. I have no idea.

ZAHN: What can you tell us about any mobilization of ambulances? None of our correspondents has actually seen any ambulance leave the area yet, have you?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Where we are right now, I haven't seen any ambulances. We also, you know, we are a volunteer fire department. We run two ambulances. Both of our ambulances are over here, and I believe they are at a staging area with the New York City EMS services. I have no clue of any injuries or injured people that have been removed. I can tell you there are none here. Luckily, the occupants of the house got out without getting injured. And no firefighters have suffered any injuries at the time.

ZAHN: And, as we continue to talk, I need to make it very clear, the pictures we are looking at now were taken much earlier in the morning. That crash happening about 17 minutes after 9:00 Eastern Standard Time. We don't have a picture of exactly where you are right now. But describe to us how people in the neighborhood, many of whom had children home from school today, because of Veterans Day, are reacting to all this.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: People are in shock. You know, I myself, and I'm sure every firefighter and police officer here are in shock. You know, this is hard to believe, you know, that something like this can happen again. We don't know exactly what happened yet. But you can only speculate from what happened on September 11th, that, you know, this could be another terrorist attack. We are -- they are not saying anything yet, but any human being, common sense, this doesn't happen like this. It is sad to happen again.

ZAHN: Yes, the FAA making it clear that they continue to view this as an accident until they learn otherwise, although, as you know, a number of eyewitnesses have reported to CNN this morning that they saw some sort of explosion before the plane went down.

Chief Truden, one final question for you this morning. When Mayor Giuliani did a very brief interview this morning, he expressed what it was like to come to an area that had lost so many firefighters from the September 11th attacks. And he said, and here we are, you know, in the neighborhoods where they once lived, basically doing the Lord's work. Do you feel the impact of that loss as you try put out this horrible, horrible fire today?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Absolutely. I come from the Broad Channel community, and we are part of the Rockaway community, and, you know, the Rockaway community was hit hard between firefighters and civilians that were lost at the World Trade Center. And for this to happen in this neighborhood, it's, you know, tragic. I can't even put it into words, and you know, obviously we have a long fight ahead of us to keep our freedom. I'm sure our country will prevail. But it is just sad and, you know, people here are shocked. And we will work through it. You know, the police department and the fire department and all the communities in this great country will pull through it, and we'll keep going, and we'll do what it takes it keep our freedom.

ZAHN: Chief Truden, thank you so much for your time this morning. Continued good luck.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: No problem. Thank you, Paula.

ZAHN: For those of you just joining us, I wanted to bring you quickly up to date on what we know at this hour, that American Airlines flight 587, and Airbus A300 was taking off from JFK International at about 9:17 this morning. That plane, we are told, was originally scheduled to take off at 8:40. We're not sure what the delay was about. Excuse me, the plane crashed at 9:17, but there was a slight delay in the takeoff. We are trying to figure out what might have delayed the plane.

Air American Airlines confirming 246 passengers on board, in addition to nine crew members. American Airlines will be holding a news conference just about six minutes from now from its Dallas headquarters. We will be taking that live. Our latest reporting from the Pentagon from Bob Franken would suggest that combat jets were flying routine missions at the -- what they call routine flights, at the time of the crash. There were no reports of any irregularities coming from the plane, no distress calls.

The La Guardia Airport this hour remains closed, even though this banner says all three airports remain closed. It is our understanding that at this 11:00 rush hour at JFK, Eastern Standard Time, there are incoming flights that are being allowed to land at JFK. Newark still closed. I have just been told that American Airlines press conference that was supposed to happen at 11:30 has been postponed to noon. Meanwhile, we will keep up the that 1-800 number for all of you who might have had family members on that plane. Let's go to Jason Carroll, who was one of the first correspondents in at the crash site -- Jason.

CARROLL: All right, Paula. Let me start out by setting the scene and telling you exactly where I am. I'm at Rockaway Beach Boulevard and 133rd Street. It's about a block, a block and a half away from where the accident happened, just beyond the homes in the emergency vehicles that you see there.

This whole thing happened at about 9:15. The way witnesses describe it out here is they saw the plane coming overhead, and there was some sort of fire or explosion on the left hand, possibly the right-hand side of the plane, then all of a sudden the pilot lost control, pieces of the plane started breaking off, falling, and then we have the crash. This is where we see the main part of the crash, of the accident. I'm going to bring in an eyewitness right now. This is Ethan Moses. We were talking to him early this morning. He was one of the first people out here when this happened.

Ethan, why don't you start out by telling us, what did you see?

MOSES: I was just pushing my fish (ph) and coming down at Beach 139th Street. I saw this plane like it's just taken off from Kennedy. It was in a climbing position. When I look up, I saw like fire under the left side of the engine, and then suddenly, you know, I saw the engine and the wing, the left side engine of the wing, like it separated from the plane. The plane was still traveling. It tilted to the left slightly, and then it just make a nosedive straight down.

CARROLL: What was that like to witness something like that?

MOSES: I was shaking. I'm still shaking right now.

CARROLL: When you first got over to the scene to where it happened, what did you see? I know there must have been a lot of fire, a lot of smoke.

MOSES: A lot of fire, a lot of smoke. I tried to help an old man who was sitting on the sidewalk, just a couple of feet away from the fire. They take him down to Beach Drive. You know, it was terrible, terrible.

CARROLL: Describe what's back here beyond these homes here. MOSES: Behind here, you've got a residential area, with a lot of people maybe at work. Most of the houses empty, because we try to knock on doors, and you know.

CARROLL: You did try to knock on doors.

MOSES: Yes, a lot of people wasn't home.

CARROLL: How many homes back there are affected by your count? Any ideas?

MOSES: They were just going off one after the other, one after the other, because they are very close together. We have about like six so far.

CARROLL: So the fire, you know, where it happened, and then the fire started spreading to other homes as well.

MOSES: Yes, definitely, starts spreading just like that, in seconds.

CARROLL: Did have you an opportunity to talk to any of the emergency crews? Did they tell you anything at all about people on the ground who may have been hurt, or survivors or casualties.

MOSES: No, no, no, no, I did not.

CARROLL: Anything else you can tell us about the neighborhood or anything possibly that some of the other neighbors told you.

MOSES: I'm telling -- I'm just shaking right now. I don't know what to say, you know. I'm still shaking.

CARROLL: Understandably. Thank you very much. We really appreciate you talking to us.

Also want to tell you, Paula, that we did have an opportunity to speak with Barry Mond (ph), the director of the New York office of the FBI, and he said that they are looking into the possibility that there was some sort of fire or explosion before the plane went down. At this point, he has moved on to JFK Airport to complete his investigation there. At this point, we are still trying to find out from emergency crews who are out here if there were any survivors, anyone who was hurt. Actually, at one point, we did have an opportunity to speak to a doctor. He was running by. We had an opportunity to stop him, and he said, did you see anyone out there that was hurt? Have you heard of anything? He said, all I can tell you right now is that there is a lot of smoke, a lot of fire, and so we are doing our best. And so we were unable to find out from him in terms of any sort of numbers about casualties, or those people who were hurt on the ground.

Once again, accident happening right beyond where the homes that you see there. I can tell you though that we are not seeing the level of smoke that we saw before. When we were out here about an hour ago, thick, heavy smoke just about everywhere you look, the smell, an acrid smell, just about everywhere. That seems to have dissipated some. So perhaps whatever fire was burning there. They're probably at this point, getting it somewhat under control -- Paula.

ZAHN: All right, Jason Carroll, thanks so much.




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