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White House Press Briefing Addresses American Airlines Crash

Aired November 12, 2001 - 12:00   ET


PAULA ZAHN, CNN ANCHOR: We just hit the 12:00 hour here on the East Coast, and wanted to bring you all, for those of you who are just joining us, quickly up to date on what we know at this hour. The NTSB, which is the lead investigator, on this search, along with the FAA, is saying they are viewing this as an accident. American flight -- American Airlines flight 587 left JFK this morning at 9:13 Eastern Time. That was after about a half-hour delay. We're not sure what caused that delay. Several minutes later, the plane went down in the Rockaway section of Queens, New York. American Airlines confirming some 246 passengers were onboard this plane, in addition to a crew of nine.

The plane ended up crashing about five miles from JFK airport. CNN THIS MORNING has had a total of 10 eyewitness who describe what they saw before this morning before that plane went down, most of them describing seeing fire coming from an engine. Conflicting accounts whether it was a left engine or a right, but Our tabulations show more often than not, they thought it was a left engine that was involved in planes. Our last eyewitness actually hearing what she described as a sonic boom before that plane went down.

The Associated Press now telling us that the FBI believes there was an explosion aboard that plane, although we could not confirm that with the FAA, and they are investigating its source. We are awaiting a news conference by Ari Fleischer from the White House this morning, at about the same time American Airlines is expected to get its news conference under way, and as we dip into these news conferences, we will then be joining my colleague, Aaron Brown, who will take over the reigns in New York, but before we do that, let's check with Jason Carroll, who has an update for us -- Jason.

JASON CARROLL, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Paula, I can tell you that things look much differently now than they did just about a hour ago. I am standing about a block and a half from where the accident happened. Just a half hour ago, this place was filled with smoke, and the smell of smoke was just about everywhere, thick, black grayish smoke.

Now all seems to be clear in terms of the smoke, and again, we're only about a block, block and a half from it happened.

Just to recap, once again, the way witnesses tell it out here, at about 9:15, 9:16 some heard some sort of a loud sonic type of boom. In fact, some witnesses out here telling us that they heard it was the Concorde at first, but then some witnesses said that dishes started to rattle inside their homes, windows started to rattle. They knew that something else, something very bad had happened. Witnesses say they ran out of their homes and saw that a plane had come in at a diagonal angle, hit a corner house. Fire erupted, the fire then spread to several other homes that are in this area.

Again, we are in the Far Rockaway area of Queens. For those people who are unfamiliar with this section of Queens, it is only located about a few miles, several miles, in fact, from JFK Airport. The fire then spread to several homes. Firefighters were here with police and emergency crews almost immediately. They managed to get the fire under control.

The way witnesses describe it, when the plane was coming down, there was actually some sort of a fire or possibly some sort of an explosion that happened. Before the plane went down. I actually had an opportunity to speak to the director of FBI, the New York office here, and he said, at this point, the FBI is investigating that there was some sort of explosion before the plane went down. Witnesses saying pieces of the plane, parts of the engine, possibly parts of the wing, fell before the plane actually crashed here in this neighborhood. I can also tell you that this is an area where people already lost so money.

Some of the neighbors out here telling me that at least 90 people were killed in the World Trade Center disaster. Some of those who worked at Cantor Fitzgerald at the World Trade Center, some police officers, some firefighters, who responded on the scene, so this was already a neighborhood that was in mourning, and when something like this happens, it just adds to the level of grief.

Back to you.

ZAHN: Thanks, Jason.

Let's quickly go back to Miles O'Brien, who is an expert flyer himself, to better understand what we could be potentially look at here. Miles, I think we need to confess the video is a little bit confusing, because we have yet to the see the shot of the part of the engine that fell in the boat that was parked in a driveway outside of a home that later ended up being engulfed in flames, but yet we have second picture of an engine in front of the gas station. Because we know at this hour could be what the city is calling four different crash sites.

MILES O'BRIEN, CNN ANCHOR: Yes, you have to ask yourself the question, what sort of scenario, what sort of explosion, be it internal or external, would cause it to split that way.

I'm going to send it right back to you, Paula. I believe we have some breaking news.

ZAHN: OK, let's check in with John King very quickly to gives us all a preview of what we might hear at this White House briefing.

John, what have you learned? JOHN KING, CNN SR. WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Ari Fleischer will brief us this morning on the federal conversation this morning with the federal agencies involved in the investigation, as well as with New York officials. We are told by senior administration officials, there was some discussion early on, right after the crash, of shutting down the airport system across the country. That was considered as a precautionary measure, but then rejected in the words of one senior administration official, because there is no evidence indicating such a step is necessary. All indications are, we are told by senior administration officials, is that the early evidence is that this is an accidental crash. They are investigating it as such. But because of the current environment of course. One official was saying a short time of ago, there was no threats of this nature, nothing of a credible nature at all. You have to assume a crash, and then remember, in this environment, you can not assume anything.

Ari Fleischer, we are told, will brief us on just what the government is doing to respond to this. He's do here in the briefing room any second.

ZAHN: And yet, John King, we are told that the FBI is not discounting these reports of the eyewitness we've spoken with this morning, many of whom not only hearing an explosion before the crash, but seeing flames coming from an engine.

KING: We are told that officials assume because of the eyewitness accounts, that there was some sort of a fire or explosion on the plane, but these sources stressing to us that they cannot at all determine what the source of that fire or explosion would be, that if there was an engine fire, for example, that could cause an explosion, but they are cautioning us away from anything, saying the evidence in this investigation is just beginning to be gathered and that they have very little information so far.

ZAHN: Can you give us any more insights as to how this has altered the president's schedule today. We were told earlier, i don't know if you've been able to confirm this, that a number of meetings have been canceled.

KING: There were supposed to be some scheduled interviews with U.S. and Russian journalists. The president meets with Vladimir Putin, the president of Russia tomorrow. Some of those meetings, as well as some of the president's briefings for his mini-summit meeting with the Russian president postponed, because the president went to the White House situation room at one point, and then to the Oval Office, to coordinate the federal government's response. He spoke to New York City officials, and New York State officials as well. So yes, this was supposed to be a slow day at the White House. Obviously, the president, here you see Ari Fleischer and his team coming to the briefing room now.

ZAHN: Where is Ari? Here is his team.

KING: He comes Ari into the briefing room now.

ZAHN: OK, you can see him, from your perspective. KING: Let's listen in.

The American Airlines briefing gets under way at 12:45. We'll cover it live as well.


This morning, as the president was convening a meeting of his National Security Council to go over the latest developments in the war against terrorism, he received a note handed into the meeting at 9:25 informing him of the crash of an American Airlines flight at JFK Airport in New York City. That flight, of course, turned out to be flight 587 from New York's JFK to Santa Domingo in the Dominican Republic.

At that point, Governor Ridge came down into the situation room and immediately began a conference call with the attorney general, with the director of the FBI, with the secretary of transportation, with the director of the Federal Emergency Management Administration, with officials from the Department of Defense as well as the Federal Aviation Administration to monitor events, to receive the latest information and to begin putting in the actions the federal government would shortly take.

The president called Mayor Giuliani and spoke with Governor Pataki, and the president expressed to both of them his deepest sympathy for the people of New York to be enduring any other such trauma at a time when new York has already gone through so much.

The president said to both that the federal government will do everything it can to help, and he informed them both that the government was sending up teams as they were speaking. The president also praised the precautions taken by the mayor and the governor concerning the actions they took on the ground.

Specifically, the federal government has done the follow: The National Transportation Safety Board has a team of investigators on site already and they have an additional go-team of a larger number of investigators that are en route. The National Transportation Safety Board is the lead investigating agency. The assistant director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation out of New York City is already on site, and the director of the Federal Emergency Management Administration, Joe Allbaugh, is en route to New York, will be arriving there later this afternoon.

The New York Disaster Team Office remains opened in New York, and Director Allbaugh has stated that four urban search-and-rescue teams are on standby and are available in the event that officials in New York seek their assistance; they will respond if requested.

That is the status of the information we have at this time.

QUESTION: Ari, the fact that the NTSB is the lead on this, is this an indication, do you believe it was an accident as opposed to a criminal act? FLEISCHER: I want to be very cautious about any conclusions at this early time about what is the cause of this. As you know, first facts are often facts that are subject to the greatest change. But the National Transportation Safety Board is the lead government agency doing the investigating.

QUESTION: Is there any evidence of terrorism, at this point? And was there any reports of trouble from the cockpit or...

FLEISCHER: There were no unusual communications with the cockpit. We have not yet discovered the black box. Authorities believe they will find it in this case. It has not been found at this moment.

There will be additional communications that will be searched to see if there are any other communications. But at this moment, all communications were normal prior to the crash.

QUESTION: Is there any evidence of terrorism at this point?

FLEISCHER: On the question of whether there is any terrorism, as I indicated at the beginning, first information is all subject to change. We have not ruled anything in, not ruled anything out.

As I mentioned, the investigation is being headed by the National Transportation Safety Board to try to determine the cause of it.

QUESTION: And you can't say what other officials have said on background, that there is no evidence of terrorism?

FLEISCHER: I'm aware of what the other officials have said, and I understand why they're saying it.

This is simply from the White House point of view, where we always maximize caution at a time like this. The White House will continue to gather the facts to review the information. The president is aware of the statements that have been made by other officials.

There is understandable reason why they said what they've said. And I leave at that, at this moment.

Obviously, the White House, as events unfold, as information becomes available, we'll make all information available.

QUESTION: You're not disputing that information.

FLEISCHER: Not disputing anything.

QUESTION: Was there, in fact, an explosion on board, and is that being investigated as something that may be purely related to a mechanical failure, at this point?

FLEISCHER: I saw a report on the news earlier that indicated a government official had said there was an explosion on board. I've been informed that there was no government official who gave any such indication. The government continues to gather the facts to ascertain information.

There have been, according to eyewitnesses, information that an engine was seen being detached from the plane and that it landed separately from the main body of the airplane.

QUESTION: Let me just follow on a different point. Has the government received any credible threats that coincided with this morning that would -- nothing that would lead it to...


QUESTION: Only the New York airports were shut down. Is that a positive sign, you didn't shut down this nation's entire air system?

FLEISCHER: I don't want to characterize anything as positive or negative in this light, but clearly the facts speak for themselves. The four airports in the New York area, including Westchester County were ordered closed by the FAA, the air space. The FAA is reopening the air space and I think that you can expect that the shutdown of the airports will be of a limited duration.

QUESTION: (OFF-MIKE) it was passed to the president, and when did the White House (OFF-MIKE) that information?

FLEISCHER: There is a routine functioning here at the White House -- a 24-hour situation room that is manned by some very good experts who have developed a long history of monitoring events around the world of all types, whether they turn out to be accidental or whether they turn out to be something otherwise. And the president was in one area of the situation room in the middle of his National Security Council meeting with the Pentagon and other officials, and a captain who was in charge of the situation room brought a note in, and that is how the president heard about it.

QUESTION: What can you tell us about the president's reaction -- words or other reactions in the hours since then?

FLEISCHER: I was with the president when he spoke with Mayor Giuliani and Governor Pataki, and the president was concerned. He is very concerned that New York has to endure any other accident or anything else that this or may not be; just his heartfelt concern for the people of New York and for the victims of this flight. There are approximately 200, 255 people aboard the flight. The appropriate FAA or NTSB agencies will be having more specific information on that later, but the president has deep concern and sympathy for the families here, for the community in which the plane crashed, and of course for the people of New York generally.

QUESTION: Was consideration given to a nationwide shutdown and is that no longer on the boards now?

FLEISCHER: There is no such consideration at this time.

QUESTION: Was there?

FLEISCHER: I think it is fair to say that anytime something like this happens the government asks a series of questions about how best to handle this. And again, the facts speak for themselves. The FAA ordered the action it took at the four airports. It is fair to say they considered other action. The action speaks for itself, though.

QUESTION: Does the president still plan to meet President Putin? Still plan to go to Crawford? Has his schedule changed at all because of this?

FLEISCHER: Absolutely. He still plans on that. In fact, the president, he'd gone into the Oval at about 6:58 this morning and spoke with President Jiang Zemin of China and congratulated China on its succession in to the World Trade Organization, the WTO. He talked with him about the cooperation in the war against terrorism.

The president also had a meeting of the Domestic Consequences Committee in the Oval Office, where he discussed the importance of Congress passing the economic stimulus package, as well as the aviation security bill. He talked about the Farm Relief bill that is being considered in the Senate.

And so, the president has been monitoring events, talking to officials on the ground, directing the government agencies, as well as conducting other business of the government. He spoke with Prime Minister Blair as well.

QUESTION: Ari, any new precautions because the environment we live in? You have the domestic team, obviously, Governor Ridge into the situation right away, but are there any new steps that are taken in these situations, because of the environment we live in, say, the passenger manifests immediately given to the FBI or anything like that?

FLEISCHER: I think it's safe to say that, as a result of government protections and other programs and plans that are in place, prior to September 11th, as well as those that have been beefed up, since September 11th, there are a series of steps that have been taken. I think you'll hear additional information about that from the appropriate government agencies.

QUESTION: You said that there was no unusual communications from the cockpit. Can you tell us what your understanding is of the nature of those communications, and are you aware that the pilot declared to ground controllers that he had a mechanical problem?

FLEISCHER: No. That's what I mean by no unusual communications. There were no communications in the cockpit -- first reports. And, again, I want to caution everybody first reports do change, and we will be looking for additional tapes, any other information that is available. But by all first reports, there were no unusual communications between the cockpit and the tower at JFK or the New York facility that was handed over communications after the plane departed from the airport area.

QUESTION: Not even an indication that the pilot declared an emergency? FLEISCHER: By all first reports, there were no unusual communications between the pilot and communicators either at JFK or at the New York facilities that monitor traffic after it's taken off.

QUESTION: (OFF-MIKE) publicly do you think today?

FLEISCHER: We'll let you know if he does.

QUESTION: Ari, a follow-up to that question. What does the White House make of the idea that the FAA said that, at 9:17, they lost radar and radio contact, which is unusual? So, even if there was no unusual communications, the fact that they lost contact is unusual.

FLEISCHER: Well, that clearly happened, and that speaks for itself. I mean, an airplane crashed, and when airplanes crash, they go below radar ability to see them and so that you do lose contact. The question was there any unusual contact, not lost contact. Clearly, contact was lost.

But were there any conversations between the pilot and any of the towers or the communications facilities that would have indicated any trouble that the pilots were aware of. The answer to that, based on all preliminary reviews, is no.

QUESTION: Ari, where was and where is the vice president today? And has his location changed because of this event?

FLEISCHER: No. Prior to this, the vice president was already at an undisclosed secure location. The vice president also has been monitoring events. He spoke with the president.

QUESTION: You said that somebody spoke about the calls -- there's no unusual communications. But do you have -- has the White House received any details beyond what the eye-witnesses -- what we've heard the eye-witnesses say?

FLEISCHER: No. Again, I've shared with you as much as I can and will continue to monitor events, monitor facts, and report as we know. I just caution everybody first reports typically are the reports that change the most. I think you are hearing from people on the ground, who are faithfully reporting, what they know at this time, what they have seen, what eye-witnesses have reported, and we will continue to update information and provide it as it becomes available.

Governor Ridge, by the way, has also spoken with Mayor Giuliani. He did just now. So you can anticipate throughout the day that the White House and federal agencies will stay in very close touch with the people of New York.

QUESTION: Ari, did the president, in his conversation with Giuliani -- Giuliani made reference to New York requesting air cover as a precaution. Can you outline for us what decision-making was done on that at then end? And whether the military alert status changed at any time?

FLEISCHER: And I think the mayor alluded to this as well, air cover had already been in place over New York and Washington. There were a series of precautions since September 11 across the country that have been in place and remain in place, so that was already present.

QUESTION: He indicated he had asked for air cover, so this not...

FLEISCHER: It as already present in New York.

QUESTION: Was the military alert status changed at all because of what happened in New York today?

FLEISCHER: There were -- as a result of this, the military -- and you may want to talk to them -- does have defense crews, fighter capability that they will change the level of in regard to any particular needs, and they did take appropriate defensive measures as quickly as they received word about this. But again, I mention that that's something you've also seen since September 11 across the country.

QUESTION: Has the president, Ari, ordered any other actions to take place outside of New York involving air travel, involving any other security measures in the wake of this crash?

FLEISCHER: No. As you know, the actions taken by the Federal Aviation Administration apply to the three New York City airports and the Westchester County airport.

QUESTION: Ari, assuming that the president ultimately makes those calls, right, based on recommendations from the FAA...

FLEISCHER: Which calls?

QUESTION: Whether to close down additional airports or do anything.

FLEISCHER: No. Those are decisions that are made by the FAA. That is within their authority, and they act upon their information and take those actions.

QUESTION: Does the president feel comfortable with those decisions, given that what you seem to be saying is that they're based largely on an absence of information? In other words, no threats that have come in or you're not disputing what other...

FLEISCHER: Absolutely. That's why I indicated to you that the president said to Mayor Giuliani and Governor Pataki that they took appropriate precautions in the actions that they took. The president feels the same way about the plan that the federal government took.

QUESTION: Ari, after September 11, the president made a great effort to talk about the airlines being safe, he encouraged people to fly. What is his message after today?

FLEISCHER: The president continues to believe that. You know, I think, again, it's important to wait to see exactly what the facts are and as they develop.

But prior to September 11, accidents took place. We don't yet know what the precise cause of this is. But prior to September 11, events took place, and the public still traveled, accidents took place.

FLEISCHER: The president continues to believe that people need to travel. The American people need to get on with their lives and I think the American people have responded to that.

QUESTION: That was my question, given the economic difficulties of the airlines, is he concerned that this could turn out to be a turn-away from the airlines even more?

FLEISCHER: Well, actually the facts bear out just the opposite -- that the American people are increasingly traveling, increasingly flying. And obviously, this just took place a few hours ago and we will see how the public responds, but the president's message to the president is that they should still travel, they should still live their full lives.

Last question?

QUESTION: If there was evidence of terrorism, you probably would have closed down the air space already, wouldn't you?

FLEISCHER: I am not going to speculate beyond anything that I have indicated. Again, the reason for that is because it is always important from the White House point of view at a time like this to exercise maximum caution as first facts are ascertained and reviewed. Information will continue to be shared throughout the investigation as events warrant. You will continue to hear from other government agencies. There will be a series of other briefings today. National Transportation Safety Board is going to brief. I know that American Airlines is going to be speaking shortly. So you are going to continue to receive information and the White House will continue to provide it as well.

Thank you very much everybody. Thank you.

AARON BROWN, CNN ANCHOR: White House spokesman Ari Fleischer on what is known about the crash of American Airlines flight 587 this morning shortly after takeoff from John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York. Mr. Fleischer making a number of important points, and we would put the headline on this is very little is known.

It is important now, as it always is. It's particularly important in these days after September 11th, to reinforce what is known as opposed what might be or what we all worry about.

What is known is that this plane crashed. The cause of the crash is not known, and in fact Mr. Fleischer made the point at least three times that we heard, that the NTSB, the National Transportation Safety Board, is still the lead investigator or on this. The significance of that, at this moment, is that it is not yet considered a criminal investigation. If that were to happen, the FBI would become the lead investigator.

At this point, it is still the NTSB, but we would say, in abundance of caution here, that that we are very early. Three hours in this kind of tragedy is not a long time to figure out what is happening. Obviously, the NTSB group on scene now, the FAA group on scene now. Police and Port Authority, New York City police and Port Authority investigators on scene now, all trying to determine a sifting through the eyewitness accounts, which can be and often are somewhat confusing. They certainly have been here.

John King, our senior White House correspondent.

John, let me throw two things at you quickly. Mr. Fleischer talked about military alert status. Obviously, a different status. Different military action than anything that would have been taken prior to September 11th.

KING: That is right, Aaron. And indeed combat air patrols is already in the skies over New York and other U.S. cities when this took place. So the alert already heightened. And Ari Fleischer confirming that the Pentagon took additional steps and those steps we know, include scrambling even more combat fighter jets to fly in the skies over the United States, up and down the coastline, just in case. That is a precautionary plan in place in case there is any unusual activity, any credible threat.

But in this case, you heard Ari Fleischer say, as you just noted, the National Transportation Safety Board is the lead agency. Also the president declined to shut down the airports around the country. That was on the table at one point as a precautionary measure. There was a suggestion that perhaps we should shut down the air-traffic control systems in the airports all across the country, just in case, but that recommendation, the decision made by the Federal Aviation Administration, but in consultation with the White House, that another indication that that at this point, they believe this was a crash, an accident, and not a terrorist incident, but you heard Ari Fleischer say over and over again, that is all based on preliminary information. The investigative teams just responding.

You heard Ari Fleischer detail the federal government's response. Rescue workers, investigators and law enforcement officials quickly dispatched the team. The president tracking events here at the White House. They say they have very little information so far. But again, all information from the White House briefing we just had and from senior administration officials we have spoken to privately, indicate that the early indications are that this was an accident, but they say of course, given the environment we live in, it is not safe to assume anything in their view, and the investigations continues, and until they have more answers, they will put the government on a heightened sense of alert, including the military.

BROWN: All right, John, don't go away yet. Let me just recap a couple of things. I want to come back to you, if I can. On the subject of air travel, the nation's air system, as you heard Mr. Fleischer and John just reiterate, is open. There are four significant airports in the New York area, three major airports, JFK, La Guardia, Newark, they were all shut down, and so was Westchester Airport, which is a medium-sized airport, just north of the city. That also shut down. Mr. Fleischer indicating that he did not anticipate the shutdown of these airports would last a long time. What precisely a long time means, obviously, is anybody's guess.

But in any case, at least some thought being given how to resume air travel into the city.

I can tell you from just my efforts to get into the city, security around the city got very tight, very quickly. Obviously, Manhattan Island was sealed pretty much to incoming traffic. Bridges and tunnels were closed and the only way to get into town was by train. They moved very quickly. We are at Grand Central Station, which is a major point for these trains, these commuter trains to arrive. Security to us, this is an observations -- I can't tell you this is an absolute fact; this is my observations -- when I got to Grand Central, was quite tight there. Areas that normally would have been open appear to us to have been sealed off. There were an awful lot of police and National Guard people at Grand Central station.

So obviously, the city's response throughout this city, not just out in Queens, has been to tighten things down until more information is known. On the subject of the National Transportation Safety board, I want to make one quick point, there are two investigative units here to keep track of.

There is Currently on scene NTSB members, investigators working. There is also what's called a go team. These are crash specialist. They, at the first sign of a crash, they head off to wherever that crash takes place. That's the go team. They are en route, but they are not on scene yet. The FEMA director, Joe Allbaugh, is heading to New York. And because of September 11th, resources in the city are stretched very, very thin, and Mr. Allbaugh will come up to New York to take charge personally of the FEMA effort, the Federal Emergency Management area.

John, I think you might have mentioned, I apologize if you did, the president has spoken now to both Mayor Giulani and Governor Pataki. We don't have much on the substance of those calls.

And, John, again, can you explain where the president was and how the president heard.

KING: The president, Aaron, was in his National Security Council briefing getting an update on his military campaign in Afghanistan, when a captain came out of the White House situation room, on duty 24 hours here in the White House, tracking events in this country and around the world, and he was slipped a note at 9:25 this morning that a plane had crashed, very little information in that note beyond the fact that a plane had crashed in the New York City area.

We know that in his conversations with the mayor and the governor, we are told the president expressed his condolences, that tragedy yet again has struck New York, and promised the full resources of the federal government, including emergency reactions, as you mentioned, Joe Allbaugh of the Federal Emergency Agency en route again to New York, and we should stress again, all our sources indicating to us, they are treating this as a crash right now, but also we saw the new White House homeland security apparatus kick into place. Former Governor Tom Ridge, now the homeland security director, went to the White House situation room, and it was he who summoned up a conference call to direct the government's initial response on that call. The attorney general, the head of the FBI, the head of the Transportation Department, as well as the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the Defense Department and the FAA, so that a new wrinkle, if you will, as to how the government responds to crises, whether it be terrorism or not.

The new homeland security director taking charge here at the White House, and the president, we are told, being constantly briefed as the developments come in -- Aaron.

BROWN: John, thank you.




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