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American Airlines Flight 587 Crashes Into Queens Neighborhood After JFK Takeoff

Aired November 12, 2001 - 12:59   ET


JUDY WOODRUFF, CNN ANCHOR: We are waiting for a National Transportation Safety Board briefing. That should be coming up shortly. But for now, let's turn it over to Miles O'Brien, my colleague in Atlanta.

Miles, and perhaps you can help us decipher a little bit more about what we heard from Mr. Becker.

MILES O'BRIEN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Judy, I'm standing with John Wiley who is an air transport pilot captain on leave with a major airline. And we've been listening to this briefing with you all and trying to sort of come to some focus at least as to where this investigation might be headed.

John, thanks for being with us.

Let's -- what's on your mind the most? The fact that the engine separated, in and of itself, not necessarily something that would bring down an aircraft, right?

JOHN WILEY, AIRLINE PILOT: It should not. Obviously we train our pilots to deal with loss of thrust. We -- loss of the engine is generally what we refer to it as. But there also have been instances on numerous different type aircraft where the engine has physically separated from the aircraft. That, in itself, should not induce loss of control of the airplane and the airplane should still be flyable unless we've got damage to the wing or possibly damage to the horizontal stabilizer.

O'BRIEN: So the question becomes then is the loss of the engine cause or affect?

WILEY: Correct.

O'BRIEN: What's your -- what's your thinking? What are the possible scenarios that would cause an engine to separate from a wing?

WILEY: There are many things that could happen. Back in the, I guess it was the '70s and '80s when we had the separation of the engine from the DC-10, that was due to some improper procedures that were used for mounting and dismounting the engine from the airplane. I don't think we're looking at that. I don't know the information on it, but the situation being is normally the engine, if it departs from the airplane, you do have hydraulic lines out in the wings. Obviously the leading edge of the wing is deployed down for the takeoff configuration so there could be any number of things that happened.

O'BRIEN: And there is a scenario where it is actually preferable for the engine to break away from the wing if an engine seizes up in some way, correct?

WILEY: You've got basically a gyroscope out here that's spinning at thousands of RPMs. There's a huge amount of mass in there. If we have what's referred to as a catastrophic seizure, if this engine stays on the airplane when you have that seizure, it transfers all the torque to the frame. And what would happen then is it would literally rip the entire pod and possibly the wing off the airplane. So...

O'BRIEN: So you want to design it to be able to breakaway under certain circumstances?

WILEY: Exactly. A number of the airplanes, in fact if you go out and you look, you'll maybe find four or five bolts the size of your index finger is what's holding this engine onto the pod. So (INAUDIBLE)...

O'BRIEN: Four or five bolts, OK.

WILEY: Yes. So it is designed to separate from the aircraft in a catastrophic seizure.

O'BRIEN: Now we've seen from that wreckage, that piece of wreckage that is located at that gas station, that gapping hole in the cowling around some of these titanium fans. What does that lead you to believe? Could it have been the disintegration?

WILEY: Possibly an -- possibly an uncontained failure, as they refer to it. During the certification of the jet engines, they will actually feed birds, debris into the engine so that we can lose some of these initial blades, we can lose some of the other parts of the engine. The engine is supposed to be able to contain that failure and continue to produce some thrust. It certainly shouldn't affect the loss of the aircraft.

O'BRIEN: Interesting. All right, so it's designed, in other words, to suck in a bird and keep on flying...

WILEY: Or multiple birds.

O'BRIEN: ... one way or another. Multiple birds if you've ran into a flock.

WILEY: Flock.

O'BRIEN: So that may not be high on the list of possibilities here.

WILEY: We don't know. I know I haven't seen anything to report that there was birds in the area. Anytime that you have airports, especially close to the coast, you're going to have seabirds in and around the area, possibly a time of migration. So -- but the fact that possibly the engine ingested a number of birds should not have caused a catastrophic seizure.

O'BRIEN: The likelihood of one of those titanium blades just disintegrating on its own after some usage, pretty slim, isn't it?

WILEY: Well, we've had a number of incidents where there have been uncontained failures. A number of years ago on a MD-88 down in Florida, we had an uncontained failure. The incident in Sioux City, Iowa, remember the DC-10, again, had an uncontained failure where the blades separated. So while they are uncommon, they do happen.

O'BRIEN: All right, let's talk a little bit about pilot procedure as doing a departure from JFK in this case.

WILEY: Sure.

O'BRIEN: The airport is down in this range. I'm probably going to get it exact wrong. I think it's probably right about there. The runway was 31 which means it went to the northwest,...

WILEY: Correct.

O'BRIEN: ... in that direction there.

WILEY: Right.

O'BRIEN: Now obviously the destination was to the south and so typically you've got LaGuardia up in this area. Typically what happens is the plane comes off and pretty much right after liftoff begins a fairly good 310 degree right turn back and around and that sort of gives us some indication as to why the accident occurred where it occurred. Give me a sense of what's going on in the cockpit through that whole procedure from the moment they put those throttles in to the moment of the impact there.

If there's an engine failure at certain periods of time, it's more critical obviously.

WILEY: What happens is you pull on the runway, your takeoff performance is predicated on the airport, it's predicated on the way to the airplane and it's predicated on the altitude of the airport. It's -- a whole number of factors go in. And before each takeoff, these numbers are computed. The crew is basically briefed this, they discuss what's going to happen.

You pull on the runway, you push the thrust levers up, make sure your engines are set at takeoff thrust. The pilot and co-pilot verify this -- pilot, first officer. As we go down the runway at 80 knots, the carrier that I work for, we make an 80-knot call. And this is basically the departure between a low-speed rejected takeoff and a high-speed rejected takeoff. The difference being is below 80 knots, just about anything that happens, a door opening, a problem with the airplane performance, anything that happens below 80 knots, we reject the takeoff. After 80 knots, we are now into what's called a high- speed rejected scenario and that is that we're only going to stop the takeoff for an engine failure, catastrophic failure, so situations where we think the airplane is not going to fly.

We accelerate to our next speed, which is referred to as a V-1 speed and this is our decision speed. At V-1 we're committed to go ahead and take off. And again, this goes with the calculations for that runway, that airport and et cetera. At V-1, an engine can fail on a two-engine airplane and we are -- our performance says that the airplane will still fly.

We continue down the runway. Our next speed is VR, rotation speed. We pull the nose up into the air and we attain a V-2 speed. Climb out at this V-2 speed, which is a minimum speed. Again, our wing is configured for takeoff. About 1,000 feet, or if you're in noise abatement procedures it may modify the departure, but approximately 1,000 feet, most carriers we'll set climb power, we'll start retracting the flaps and you now are getting into a cruise configuration to climb out.

O'BRIEN: So moral of that story is, it's safe to say they were getting ready for cruise configuration at this juncture?

WILEY: Precisely. He had probably already set climb power as he's coming around here. Most likely, if he's completed this turn, he will have his flaps up unless he's trying to make a small radius turn. If he's trying to make a small radius turn, he may have left his flaps down to decrease the size of the turn.

O'BRIEN: All right. And we just heard a little earlier from the White House that there was no unusual communication between the crew and the -- either the tower or the approach controller. So we'll put that into the whole mix here as we try to figure out exactly what happened.

Let's send it to Aaron Brown in New York.

AARON BROWN, CNN ANCHOR: Miles, thank you. That is a fascinating look at what at least might have been going on and the problems that the crew faced as it made this turn out of Runway 31 at JFK headed towards the water and it never made it. It never made it.

Brian Cabell has been out in Queens listening to people, among them, the mayor. Brian's on the phone I believe.

Brian, what did the mayor have to say?

BRIAN CABELL, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, the mayor, Aaron, just completed a walking tour of the site. And he said as far as he can tell, four homes destroyed, four have been damaged seriously and perhaps a dozen or so others have been damaged. We asked him about casualties on the ground. He said that's unknown so far. He appeared here, by the way, with the ambassador to the Dominican Republic and he admits consolation as his sympathies for the people who were lost.

They honestly don't know how many people have been killed so far, but they do confirm the 246 passengers, plus the 9 crewmen.

He says the plane came down in several different places. The wing, as we had heard from a witness earlier, came down in the bay or at least a part of the wing came down in the bay. At least one engine came down at a gas station and the rest of it came down at 131st and just about two blocks away from where we are standing right now.

He said as to the plane taking off, everything appeared to be normal, no unusual communications with the tower prior to its taking off. However, he said there was apparently a delay leaving the gate, a delay on the tarmac, but he said don't speculate as to what might have caused that.

He urged New Yorkers to just continue with their lives. He said this is something very normal, at least they're treating this as normally as possible. The bridges and the tunnels leading into New York were opened up about an hour ago. They were closed down for people getting into New York shortly after the crash. But again he's saying, do not speculate at this point as to any possible relationship to terrorism.

The NTSB is on the scene. The FBI is obtaining the passenger manifest to see if there's anything at all that looks suspicious here. (INAUDIBLE) ground of what we have still is a lot of policemen, a lot of firemen on the scene. The plume of smoke has died down, of course, over the last couple of hours. And he is just around here trying to tell people, take it easy, let's not jump to any conclusion. And they're trying to, at this point, Aaron, figure out how many people on the ground were killed as well as the people onboard the plane.

BROWN: Brian, terrific job of reporting there, thank you. A couple of things that I think...

I'm sorry, did I interrupt the sound -- a piece of the mayor's sound? If I did, I apologize, and if we could -- OK.

There now seems to be a pretty consistent pattern of information on a couple of points. The first and foremost, no unusual communication. We've now heard that from both Washington, from the mayor of New York, so at this point, that seems to be pretty much at this point what everyone believes that there was no distress call from the plane to the tower.

Now what was going on in the plane in the cockpit is an entirely different matter. And we have heard that officials do believe they will be able to recover the black boxes. That will presumably, assuming that they are in tact, that will help answer the question what was going on in the cockpit. It will also, if both black boxes are recovered, it'll also give us a much better idea of what was going on with the airplane itself.

In the meantime, while we wait for these precise technical answers which may be days, weeks, months in coming, we rely for now on the -- on the eyes and ears of people who were in the area, among them, David Saliro who talked to us earlier.


DAVID SALIRO, EYEWITNESS: We were getting on the on-ramp on Cross Bay Bridge. And we saw, we looked up, we saw the plane -- fire coming from the left-hand side. It could have been an explosion or it could have been that the engine was on fire. We're not exactly sure.

PAULA ZAHN, CNN ANCHOR: Now, are you convinced it was the left side because another eyewitness just told Jason Carroll he believed he saw a fire or some kind of explosion coming from the right side of the aircraft.

SALIRO: No, it was definitely the left side because we were exactly getting on to the bridge, on Cross Bay Bridge, which is maybe not even five miles from JFK Airport and it flew right over us. And then what happened is we had started to veer to the left and then it veered back right. And we could actually see that the plane went on fire on the left-hand side.

ZAHN: David, as we have been reporting all morning, that the plane was taking off from JFK. How low was it at the point where you saw it?

SALIRO: Very low. I was actually scared that it was going to veer, you know, towards us and maybe hit us. We stopped dead in our tracks. And I was actually in the car with my brother and we were both shaking. We didn't know what to do.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: And we actually reversed off -- tried to get off the bridge, get off the exit before, you know -- we reversed to get away...

SALIRO: ... before the plane came towards us. But, it was very low, we seen something fly off the plane. It could have been an explosion. It could have been the engine on fire, but it was definitely on fire. It was in flames when it was heading down.


BROWN: David Saliro, a witness to this morning's crash of the United Airlines 587. He described the plane as being very low.

Based on calculations that were done by an independent firm that tracks airline takeoffs and landings and the like, the plane took off a few seconds past 9:16 and at the moment contact was lost, it was at about 2,800 feet. And you heard Mr. Golfar (ph), the former FAA official, talked about, I think this came up also in Miles' interview just a short time ago, this is a very critical time in a flight. This is a time when the crew, because of the speed the plane is traveling, it is not that fast, and because of the altitude that it is flying, not that high, it is a very critical. It is, obviously, in any flight a very dangerous time.

Takeoffs and landings are always the most critical moments in the flight. And you can see, and this came up as well that there are at least, according to the mayor, four different areas where pieces of the plane have fallen down. Obviously one of the engines there at a gas station out in Queens.

At some point this afternoon, we'll put together -- we are trying to put together now a map just to give you a sense of where these various pieces have fallen. You see the intense fire that broke out. Four houses destroyed, dozens -- a dozen or more I think is the way I heard have been damaged. Obviously an enormous amount of jet fuel onboard those planes -- that plane. And that fuel causes, as we all know from what happened now almost nine weeks ago, a tremendous amount of fire, tremendous amount of smoke and it is a very hot fire. But we only know of four houses totally that have been destroyed, many others damaged.

We don't have any clear sense, at this point, how many people on the ground have been hurt. We don't know if anyone on the ground has been killed. It is a holiday, as most of you know. Schools are closed in the New York area. That means there were a lot of kids around, and we just don't know this stuff yet. And we are checking hospitals and we are working the phones with police and fire to try and get a handle on how many people on the ground have been hurt.

In the meantime, throughout the morning, we have talked to a number of people who saw this happen. Now each of them sees it somewhat differently, and that's important to keep in mind. We don't suggest in any of these interviews that any of them are wrong. They simply see and are describing to us what they saw. And depending on where you are and what your state of mind is at the time, it can come out a little differently and it just helps to keep that in mind as you process these eyewitness accounts.

And here is another one from a woman who saw the plane come down.


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I was in my kitchen making an egg and I saw the plane hit the house right behind my house. Actually it was really, a huge loud sound, and it seemed so low. So I was like ducking almost. And then it blew up into a huge fireball. And I jumped off the second floor to my house. It was horrible.

ZAHN: You are so lucky. How far did you have to run to get away from the fireball?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Well, we ran right across the street first, we just were in shock, everybody. And then we had to evacuate. Like ten streets away. It's -- it's unbelievable. It is horrible.

ZAHN: I know it was so shocking to hear what you heard. Did you -- besides the deafening loud sound of the explosion, did you hear anything before that?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I just heard -- it sounded like two planes, but I guess it was just one. And it was really, -- we thought it was like the Concorde. You know, and it was flying too low or something. And then it just hit, it was like a bomb exploding.

ZAHN: And, and I know that Jason, who you just met, was describing that some witnesses actually saw an explosion on the right side of the aircraft before the plane went down. So they clearly heard two separate explosions. UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Yeah...

ZAHN: Can you sort that out, right now? Because I know, I know it's got to be a complete blur to you at this point.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Well, the plane -- I think it just hit exactly the house behind me. It must have exploded into pieces. And you know, and they just fell in different areas of the neighborhood.

ZAHN: You said you jumped out of the -- the second floor window of your home?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: No, I went over the deck in my front of my house because the back was so hot -- with fire.

ZAHN: Did you get injured?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I don't know. I -- I mean, my back hurts and my, my rear hurts, but I can't think about that right now.

ZAHN: Describe to us what's going on in the neighborhood.


ZAHN: Were people fleeing...

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Utter terror here. Everybody is so distraught and upset. And in shock, pretty much. It's just hard to believe. It's just, I -- you know, you never think it's going to hit this close to home, but obviously it does.

ZAHN: Some -- some kids are out of school today for post Veteran's Day remembrances. Are you seeing many kids out on the street or actually were home, who unfortunately have to deal with the trauma of seeing this?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Most of the children aren't in the street. It's mostly adults that I see here. I think all of the children are safe at home.


BROWN: In an interview earlier this morning with a woman. Given her proximity to what happened that she had the presence of mind to speak as clearly and as she did with Paula Zahn earlier today. It's quite remarkable. She said at one point, it seemed like the plane hit the house next to me.

At this point, the government -- the federal government is treating this as an accident -- as an aviation accident. The NTSB is the lead investigative agency at this point. That is a very clear sign from the government. All of the statements coming out of Washington, coming out of the White House is that there is nothing at this point to suggest that this is anything other than an accident.

Now having said that, this point is really early and all of this can change or not. It's going to clarify as we go on a bit this afternoon as little pieces of information form a larger picture for us. But we are dealing with little pieces of information, but some of them, when processed through the right eyes, can be very helpful.




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