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Airline Officials Address Press on Queens Disaster

Aired November 12, 2001 - 12:30   ET


AARON BROWN, CNN ANCHOR: One quick fact and then I want to recap where we are. A lot of people at the bottom of the hour will be joining in.

A senior FBI official has told CNN there is nothing -- we underscore "nothing" -- to indicate this was an act of terrorism. FBI officials say law enforce knows nothing to support the claim that there was an explosion on board; there have been a number of eyewitnesses who believe they heard something of an explosion. We just want to be very careful with this. We know, from a lot of experience, how eyewitnesses can be confused pretty easily; you think and believe you have heard something in a particular order, and it is not always that case. We value them, and they certainly supply us pieces of the puzzle. But again, the FBI says at this point, there is nothing to indicate it was an act of terrorism on American Airlines Flight 587.

An 300 Airbus plane, a large one -- 246 passengers, 9 crew on board when it left JFK a little bit late this morning, 9:14 was the takeoff moment. The crash was reported 3 minutes later on the way to the Dominican Republic and Santo Domingo. As you can see the plane crashed and has broken apart in a residential part of Queens. We know a number of people have been taken to hospitals around the crash site. We know that many or most are suffering, at the least from smoke inhalation. We don't have a lot of detail on that; we will get some in a moment. Stay with us.

Those are the essential facts. The president has spoken to the governor and the mayor. We expect to hear from the mayor this afternoon; the mayor's initial reaction was "Oh, my God." I suspect that was a reaction that many in the city and around the country said, heard, thought, when they heard, early this morning, that the plane had gone down here in New York.

Jason Carroll is not far from the crash scene. He is actually quite close.

Jason, I am not sure if you can hear me or not, so I won't ask any questions -- just tell me what you know.

JASON CARROLL, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Aaron, let me tell you where I am. I am at Rockaway Beach Boulevard, at 133rd Street. The accident happened a little more than 1 1/2 blocks away from where I am standing. If you take a look behind these homes here, I can tell you that about an hour ago, that this whole area was filled with grayish, thick smoke. And now the thing seems to be relatively clear, so it looks as if the firefighters have a handle on what has happened there with the accident.

The way witnesses tell it, at about 9:15, they heard a sonic boom, a loud noise. Some thought it was the concorde taking off from JFK Airport, which is only about five miles from here. And then they saw the explosion and the crash.

I want to bring in two witnesses here, we have Tom Lynch and Allen Camp (ph). Both of them live in the area.

Why don't I start with you. Why don't you tell me what you saw when you came out here and heard everything?

TOM LYNCH: I was walking down about 3 miles from the where I was standing, taking my morning walk, and I was walking north, looking up into the sky, and I saw this airplane, and I saw the plane explode. I saw a small explosion, not too large, on the actual plane. The plane looked like it made its usual turn out of Kennedy Airport and was flying east, out towards Long Island and then to go on its way. I saw a very distinction orange explosion, and I think I saw part of or the whole wing fall, and then the airplane just arced directly down into Rockaway, where I live.

I was two miles way. I stomped some car, because I thought it could have been my home. I hopped in the car. He brought me down to approximately here, Newport Avenue. I am an ex-fireman, retired.

So I got right up to the scene. I saw four private homes completely involved, a couple of parts of the airplane on the ground. We tried to spread a couple of garden hoses. We couldn't do much. And it's very, very frustrating for pumper units to arrive, to put water on the fire, but finally, the units arrived, and I helped pull a few hoses, and then when enough people arrived, the people responsible said please, you did enough, now you can leave and clear the area.

CARROLL: I'm going to bring Allen in here too.

Allen, you were talking about how frustrating it was for you when you came up here and saw all of these homes engulfed in flames as well.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: That's correct. I got to 131st Street, and that's as far as I can go. I parked my car on 132nd, and I went down one block, but there was absolutely nothing that one can do.

Homes are engulfed in flames. The smoke was just black and very thick and choking, and the lines were popping, the utilities were exploding. And there were very few, if any, police at first, because it just happened. I was servicing an account, and I just jumped in the car, figuring maybe I could help. But there was nothing I could possibly do.

I had no idea it was a jet that went down; I did not see the actual plane at first, because I was this somebody else's house. But the sound was really very loud and shook the owner's house that I was in, the window and everything else. She ran out and called her husband; I ran out after them, and we saw some of the homeowners running towards the site. And they said they saw a plane go down, and that is when I jumped in my car and got as far as 132nd.

CARROLL: Mr. Lynch was describing what he thought was a explosion. Did you hear anything before the accident, before the crash?

LYNCH: You definitely heard the explosion. Then you heard the rumbling, and it was very loud. Like I said, the explosion did shake the house, and that brought a lot of people out; evidently, it was more than what they thought, just a plane taking off from Kennedy Airport -- it was the one that exploded.

What happened was that when I ran down over there, I saw part of a plane laying on the ground, on the right-hand side on the sidewalk, and I saw people coming off of the block, with covers over them, blankets, that lived, I guess, on that block, and they were running out. I met a homeowner that was standing with me, whose house at the time was not on fire, but I could see it could be going on fire.

CARROLL: It spread quickly.

LYNCH: It was spreading very fast. That is when I noticed -- he is the one that showed me the aircraft part, because it was actually on the side of his house.

So at that point, the overhead cables started to pop and fall, and utility poles were more or less blackened and the rubber on the lines were burning. So at this point, the police came, and the firemen were starting to come over, and they were afraid not knowing what it was, if it was terrorist or anything like that. They told us all to leave the area, which at that time, we all did.

At first, I couldn't get my car off of the block, but was able to get my car away. There was no place I could possibly go; I couldn't help anybody.

CARROLL: Mr. Camp (ph), Mr. Lynch, I want to thank both of you so very much for joining us.

I can also tell you, Aaron, in this neighborhood here, the way some of the people here are telling me, they've already lost people in the World Trade Center disaster. Some 90 people -- some of those who worked at Cantor Fitzgerald, some of the police officers, and especially the firefighters who went to respond -- they were killed in the World Trade Center disaster. So this is just one more thing to have to deal with in this neighborhood -- Aaron.

BROWN: Jason, thank you very much.

It is one more thing for people in that neighborhood to deal with, and quite honestly, it is one more thing for all of us who call New York our home to deal with today. It has been two unimaginably difficult months here, and obviously, that is not over yet. We don't know what caused the plane to crash, and we want to be very careful in how we characterize anything. For example, we have heard a number of people say today it sounded like a sonic boom. Let's not take that literally, as in there was a sonic boom; let's just assume what that means is there was a very loud noise. There are a lot of things that can cause that, and I just want us all to be very careful in how we say and frame things.

But eyewitnesses with some consistency are reporting hearing something that sounded like an explosion. When precisely that occurred in terms of the plane's distress we do not know; we are sorting that out. It is a little bit hard for us to tell from where we are how many homes have been hit, how much on the ground has been damaged.

There are so many facts large and small that are being assembled. We know perhaps within five minutes or so we will hear from the chairman of American Airlines. They are scheduled to tell us what they know, but it is not clear, at this point, that they will know a whole lot more. They may talk, in fact, a good deal about how relatives of people on board the plane, which was heading for the Dominican Republic, can get information.

Obviously, throughout the afternoon we will be hearing more from government officials and more from witness, and we will be able to assemble a wider shot of all of this, a larger view of the area that has been impacted: how much damage was done and what the rescue efforts are like. All of that as the afternoon goes along.

We are joined in Washington today by Judy Woodruff again. This now is an investigation that will take place in two cities -- in New York and in Washington, where the NTSB, the FAA, and the like are located.

Judy, good afternoon.

JUDY WOODRUFF, CNN ANCHOR: Good afternoon, Aaron.

You might say here we are again. We were talking a moment ago about what people may have said when they heard about this. As you said, Mayor Giuliani said "Oh, my God." I can assure you hearts stopped here in Washington as well after what all of us went through two months ago yesterday.

We are talking about the investigation and how it is taking place on several fronts. The lead federal agency the National Transportation Safety Board, the NTSB -- right now, what they have to go on is clearly the crash site itself, the comments of eyewitnesses.

We have been hearing those literally for the last three, 3 1/2 hours. And everything from hearing an explosion to hearing a sonic boom, it is very difficult, if not impossible, at this point, to get any sort of a coherent picture about what happened.

There does seems to be consistent eyewitness reporting, though, that people saw an engine come off the plane, and after that, parts of the plane breaking off in pieces, and finally, the plane itself coming down, in this scene you are looking at here, from earlier this morning, when much of that neighborhood in Queens was literally in flames -- several houses there.

Joining us now in Washington, in the studio, is Michael Goldfarb, a former FAA official, former FAA chief of staff.

Mr. Goldfarb, at this point, based on what you have been hearing and based on those pictures we saw of the engine lying there in someone's driveway or backyard, what can you tell, if anything, about what might have happened?

MICHAEL GOLDFARB, FORMER FAA CHIEF OF STAFF: Well, Judy, quite frankly, we can tell very, very little, so either assuring Americans that it was an aviation accident or discounting terrorism is so premature in this environment -- in aviation circles, this was almost the next nightmare, to have, potentially, an aviation crash within the context of 9/11. That engine can be a cause or a consequence of something else that happened.

I think you remember the TWA 800 crash, where, for many weeks, we thought a bomb had exploded, because we had never had a plane come down because of a fuel tank failure. So unfortunately, we are really at square one -- we're not even at square one until the NTSB teams get on the ground and start looking at this.

WOODRUFF: But just looking at, again, the pictures of the engine or a large part of the engine, does that tell you anything about how it sheared off on the plane, about whether there was an explosion or not. I mean just by looking at it, at least part of the frame there is intact, right?

GOLDFARB: Yes, and that could have been an uncontained engine failure, where the cowling is actually sheared and the blades of the engine could have severed hydraulic fuel lines and caused fire. It could have been, as you've been reporting, the problem at Kennedy of bird ingestion. It's been a historic problem at Kennedy because it's off the water. Most engine manufacturers -- I believe these are General Electric engines -- have really put their engines through lots of tests to deal with birds that may get ingested. But it can cause incredible damage. It could be a whole series of things.

WOODRUFF: But could that have happened so quickly? We gather the plane took off at 9:14, and it went down by 9:17. It was in the air, apparently, less than three minutes.

GOLDFARB: Absolutely. Those are the most critical three minutes of flight -- the most dangerous three minutes of flight. It's the time when the aircraft is most unrecoverable from something happening, meaning the pilot and the crew have very little margin to recover from an engine failure, or any other kind of problem, because of the speed they are going and they're trying to accelerate and gain lift.

So even in that three minutes, Judy, that could have been it -- but once again, it could be a whole host of other types of things. WOODRUFF: I just want to ask. Peter Gold, who was with us in the studio a little while ago, has been with the NTSB. We are told he one of the country's most experienced coordinators in disaster situations. As he was on the phone with a colleague who said that the company called MegaData, which is an independent flight tracking system, that is saying they have the exact time of departure, 9:14:34; final radar, 19:16:01; final speed, 237 knots; the altitude, 2,800 feet -- I don't know if it was the highest altitude that it achieved or what, but the flight path was seen as, quote, "absolutely normal." Does any of that tell you anything more?

GOLDFARB: Nothing. Nothing at all. In fact, that's a normal departure out of Kennedy, probably, at the altitude. That is within that amount of time that is normal. So once again, there is no information there.

Let me say one thing about how long we may have to wait here. Unlike 9/11, we knew right away it was a terrorist attack. We may not know that right away. There are two things that would help us considerably: one, the voice recorder. Certainly, any conversation in the cockpit. Two, the tapes with any air traffic control tower in the greater metropolitan area -- was there any kind of distress. But short of that information, if the NTSB has to spend time retrieving the flight data recorder, looking at this crash, our need to know may not match with the length of the investigation, and it could be several days before there is even a clue, short of someone taking responsibility -- hopefully not -- for this crash, of what happened here.

WOODRUFF: We are talking with Michael Goldfarb, former FAA official. Let me just ask you -- I realize we are very much in the realm of speculation here, so we want to be careful, and we want to keep stressing that, because it is very early into the investigation, just a few hours in. In terms of the baggage that was stored on the plane, it would have been in the underbelly of the plane, correct?


WOODRUFF: Just speculate wit me, if you will. If there were something in that baggage that exploded, could it conceivably have caused an engine to come off. To the untrained eye, that sounds unlikely, but you tell me?

GOLDFARB: Well, any kind of cargo hold explosion could have ruptured any part of the fuselage of the aircraft, where the engines are or not. So absolutely if there was an explosion in the cargo. We are in total speculation here; we have no reason to believe that, but certainly, that would be possible, even within that short time, depending on how catastrophic that might be. Remember ValuJet, when we had the problem with fire from the materials being carried in the cargohold, how quickly the fire spread through the cabin.

So these things can happen very, very quickly. Unfortunately, we have no valid information, other than pure speculation, which everybody is somewhat antsy about getting on an aircraft until we know what happened here. WOODRUFF: And I should stress immediately after our speculating that, at the White House, we have heard Ari Fleischer stress what the FBI is telling CNN separately, and that is that there is no evidence of an explosion on board. Of course, they are not ruling that out; they're not ruling it in -- but at this point, there is no evidence of that.

GOLDFARB: One other point?

WOODRUFF: This is -- we are going to go quickly to Dallas, Texas.

This is Don Carty, the chairman of American Airlines.


DONALD CARTY, CHAIRMAN/CEO, AMR: I am going to be leaving immediately after making a statement, and I'm not going to be able to answer any questions this morning.

Al Becker of our corporate communication department will stay behind and provide a little more detail than I'm going to be able to.

Well, obviously, it's an incredibly sad day. Nothing grieves me more than to report to you that, this morning, an American Airlines flight was lost in New York. I will be leaving for New York immediately to lead the American Airlines care team that is responding to today's accident.

Our primary concern will be to provide support to the families of our passengers and our employees that were lost today and to all of our employees and to all of the people on the ground in New York.

At this time, we have absolutely no indication of what caused the accident. We have moved quickly to help organize the response and to support the investigation toward that end.

I have already been in touch this morning with Andrew Card at the White House, with Mayor Giuliani and Governor Pataki in New York as well as numerous officials in Santo Domingo.

Let me just provide some basic facts about the flight today. It was American Airlines Flight 587, an airbus 8300 aircraft on route from New York, Kennedy, to Santo Domingo.

The airplane was lost today shortly after take-off from Kennedy airport. And the preliminary passenger list indicated the aircraft carried 246 passengers and nine crew members.

Family members that wish to receive information about passengers may contact American Airlines at our toll-free number at 1-800-245- 0999.

As you would imagine, today's news comes at a difficult time for the nation, a difficult time for the airline industry and a very difficult time for American Airlines. Given the changed world we live in today, it will be as important as it has ever been to quickly and to accurately determine the cause of this accident.

First and foremost, however, our thoughts and our prayers are with the families of our passengers and employees of those lost today. As I said a moment ago, I will be leaving immediately from Dallas, Fort Worth, to New York.

Let me just turn you over, as I said at the outset, to Al Becker of our corporate department with a little bit of additional information.


AL BECKER, AMR SPOKESMAN: Ladies and Gentlemen, I have just a little bit of additional information for you about the aircraft itself.

This airplane was an Airbus Industrie A-300-600. American has a total of 35 A-300s in its fleet, including the aircraft that we lost today. The aircraft was built in Toulouse, France. The tail number of the airplane is N14053, and the aircraft entered service with American Airlines as a brand new aircraft on July 12 of 1988.

A little bit of a maintenance background and history on the airplane -- there are a series of major maintenance steps that an airplane goes through, as many of you may know. This aircraft had its last A check on November 11 this year. It had its last B check, which is a somewhat heavier maintenance check, on October 3 of this year, and its last main-base visit for a major overhaul was on December 9 of 1999, and it was scheduled for a major main-base visit in July of 2002.

The aircraft had two General Electric CF6-80C2A5 engines, and the time on the number one engine on board that airplane had 694 hours since its last overhaul. The number two engine, which is the right engine, had 9,788 hours since its last overhaul. An engine will typically have a major overhaul every 10,000 hours. The last time the number two engine was in for a shop inspection was 2,887 hours ago.

That is all of the detailed information that we have available to you at this moment. As Mr. Carty mentioned, we are in contact and are working closely with all the federal authorities involved in this investigation. As more information becomes available, we will make that available to you. You are welcome to stay here with us and we will provide you with whatever updates we have at that time.


BECKER: We really do not. No. At this point, we do not. We are really just in the opening phases of this investigation. Obviously, it will be a very exhaustive one. Typically, the National Transportation Safety Board has full responsibility for the investigation. American Airlines is working very closely with the NTSB, but we really do not have any information that relates to the accident at all.

QUESTION: Any radio communications? BECKER: I have no idea. I really don't.

QUESTION: There's a report out that there's some United Airlines pilot heard the radio communication from 587, it's mechanical. Is there anything to...

BECKER: I have no information on that. Any questions that you might have that would relate to the explicit investigation itself, we simply must refer back to the NTSB. We do not.

QUESTION: Where was the crew based?

BECKER: We're ascertaining that right -- we have not released information about the crew. We hope to be able to do that soon. We have not released that information yet.

QUESTION: Can you give us a tick-tock perhaps of how the morning transpired? What time it was -- what Mr. Carty was doing and speaking to Giuliani?

BECKER: Well, he was -- I mean, he did have all those conversations. He was in the office this morning, obviously, and there were a number of major figures that Mr. Carty talked to. But, obviously, it's a very, very tragic and sad event, and there was just a tremendous amount of activity in here this morning and part of which is centered around the care team that will be leaving momentarily to go work with the families of those involved in this accident.

I'm going to have to leave you with that, ladies and gentlemen. Again, as I said to you earlier, as additional information becomes available, we'll come on back down and provide that information for you.

Thank you.

QUESTION: Before you leave -- detection devices aren't used nationwide in many airports. Were any of these bags or people checked before they got on the plane?

BECKER: Well, again, that's all -- every aspect of the incident is really involved in the NTSB investigation. The NTSB will be looking into all of that.

QUESTION: But people who have American Airlines reservations, who are worried about future upcoming travel, what are you saying to them? Are they allowed to cancel their flights or change their...

BECKER: Oh, absolutely. Oh, sure. And we have an 800 number that people can call -- it's in the news announcement we put out this morning -- so that we can work with the families.

QUESTION: Not the families...


QUESTION: ... can you talk about that? BECKER: I don't have that information. I am so sorry. I'm going...

QUESTION: You didn't answer my question. It's not the families. Just the traveling public who have reservations on American Airlines in general...

BECKER: Right.

QUESTION: ... if they are nervous about traveling, can they...

BECKER: They can simply...

QUESTION: ... postpone their travel or get a refund?

BECKER: Yes. Oh, absolutely.

QUESTION: (OFF-MIKE) at all or...

BECKER: I don't have any information on the disposition of the airplane. Again, the NTSB is going to be in charge of all that.

Ladies and gentlemen, I'm going to have to get back to you.

QUESTION: Are you doing anything with your other...

WOODRUFF: Al Becker, a spokesman for American Airlines, literally bombarded with questions from reporters, understandably, but American Airlines reeling this afternoon, the third American Airlines plane to go down in the last two months and a day. Of course, we know two planes went down on September 11, the result of terror attacks. And this plane this morning went down in Queens, New York, just, literally, two or three minutes after taking off from JFK Airport, near New York City.




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