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American Airlines Flight 587 Crashes Into Queens Neighborhood After JFK Takeoff

Aired November 12, 2001 - 16:30   ET


AARON BROWN, CNN ANCHOR: As we were saying, families have gathered at the Ramada Plaza Hotel by JFK. Hillary Lane is out there. The mayor has been out there. The governor has been out there as well.

Hillary, what can you report?

HILLARY LANE, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Aaron, one of the questions that I asked of New York City Police Chief Bernard Kerik was what sort of condition the flight data recorder appeared to be in.

And his answer to me during the briefing about an hour ago was that it did appear to be in good condition. Now that it is back in Washington, as you said, they will see if that is working. And that should shed a lot of light on what happened here today just after 9:00 this morning.

But Mayor Rudy Giuliani, Governor Pataki, and a number of others briefed us here about an hour ago. They said they had spent about 20 minutes meeting with family members. And then we were told that they spent about 45 minutes meeting with a number of the different agencies involved, including the NTSB, the FAA and the various police and fire departments.

One of the images that was the most stunning that Governor Pataki gave was describing telephone wires just 5 to 10 yards from the main crash site, saying that those wires were still intact. And that, as you said, gives the picture of a plane that came out absolutely vertically rather than gliding across a neighborhood -- but Governor Pataki also saying that that was one of the factors that may have led to less of a loss of life on the ground.

The other possibility -- and Kathleen Koch was just reporting questions about whether the pilot had dumped fuel. Mayor Giuliani said that he had had a Coast Guard report confirming that. But, as you know, in a situation like that, information does come and go. Sometimes early reports are not accurate. But that would have been maybe one of the reasons that they were able to put that fire out so quickly on the ground, Governor Pataki saying because the pilot dumped nearly a full tank of fuel into the Jamaica Bay.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) GOV. GEORGE PATAKI (R), NEW YORK: ... have been advised that they believe, as part of the investigation, that the pilot did dump fuel over Jamaica Bay before the crash, which is consistent with the pilot having some belief that there was a significant mechanical failure on the plane. But the investigation obviously is ongoing, and there is no conclusion that has been reached.


LANE: Aaron, as you also mentioned, Mayor Rudy Giuliani wouldn't comment on the state of the families. But we have been told from other people here on the site that this is a heartbreaking scene inside: many people crying; a lot of emotion; many people also just sitting quietly in corners waiting for any information that they might get -- back to you.

BROWN: Hillary, think you very much.

Whatever it looks like at the Ramada -- and we can only imagine -- we saw, I don't know, 90 minutes or so ago, some pictures that were shot at the airport in the Dominican of family and friends gathered there. And they had just heard the news of what had happened. And those pictures, as they always are in these situations, were just dreadfully difficult to watch.

Hillary alluded to the fact that a number of people witnessed the crash as it was happening at about 9:17 this morning. What they are able to remember may be helpful to investigators as they try and put this together.

We are going to play some of these descriptions for you. Keep in mind that people are reacting under enormous stress in these kinds of situations. Oftentimes, their accounts aren't consistent. And it often happens later that another set of facts will prove what they believe they heard was wrong, OK? But that is what happens as you are under a lot of stress.

So with those disclaimers, here are some of the witness accounts of what happened this morning in Queens.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I heard a loud crackling noise. And I looked up and I saw the left engine coming away from the plane. And I saw a lot of debris coming from behind it. It immediately veered over to the right. And it came nose down only a block away from where I was working. And when it hit, it immediately exploded.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We were in the kitchen having coffee and we heard an explosion like -- it sounded like the Concorde, with the sonic boom. And my wife said to me, "What's that?" And then the next thing we know, we felt the shutter. And the room just exploded. My daughter got blown through the patio doors. My wife got blown into the living room. And I got blown out the patio doors behind my daughter. With the black smoke, I just started yelling out for my daughter to see if she was alive. I grabbed her and I ran in. And Eileen (ph) was alive in the living room.

And we ran out of house. And with that, the whole back of the house was on fire.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: We heard a huge boom. And I ran out onto my porch. And I saw like a mushroom out of black fire, sort of. We just ran up the block, because everybody was like, "Run, run, run."

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: It blew up into a huge fireball. And I jumped off the second floor of my house. It was horrible.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I saw a very distinct orange explosion. And I think I saw part of -- or the whole wing fall. And then the airplane just arced directly down into the street, into Rockaway, where I live.


BROWN: Some of the early reaction from people in the neighborhood as that flight came down this morning -- lots of talk that they heard an explosion. We will find out if -- at some point, whether in fact that was true or not -- but, as you can understand, in the stress of the moment, people recounting as best they can what was a horrifying experience this morning.

We will take a break. We'll be joined by Jeff Greenfield, among others, when we come back.


JUDY WOODRUFF, CNN ANCHOR: Let's take just a moment now to update what we know about today's plane crash.

Federal investigators say the crash of American Airlines Flight 587, Airbus 300, will be investigated as an accident; 255 people were on board the plane when it took off from New York's JFK Airport, bound for Santo Domingo in the Dominican Republic. The plane broke apart shortly after takeoff. And it crashed into the Rockaway neighborhood in Queens. These are some pictures from the first minutes after the crash.

At least 16 people on the ground were injured, we are told -- and Mayor Giuliani saying six others are reported missing. The plane's flight data recorder has been recovered. In fact, it has already been flown back here to Washington and will be -- we are told, presumably, they are going to spend all night long looking at that flight data recorder.

This is a building, one of the private aviation -- general aviation buildings out at Reagan National Airport -- live pictures. And we are told that the flight data recorder is going to be brought out and driven away in a minute. Maybe we will get a look at it.

In the meantime, let's turn to aviation analyst and aviation journalist as well, Jim McKenna. Jim, what about the fact this was such a confined crash, the fact that it went -- according to eyewitnesses -- spiral and went nose down?

JIM MCKENNA, AVIATION ANALYST: One of the first things that investigators look at when they get on a crash seen is: What is the damage? What's the pattern that the wreckage has laid out on the ground?

A shallow descent into the ground will provide a long, stretched- out wreckage path. The fact that folks are talking about a very tight wreckage pattern in the Rockaways indicates, as some of the eyewitnesses have said, that this plane appeared to have nosed over and gone straight into the ground. Now, again, that's preliminary information.

We don't want to...

WOODRUFF: Jim, let me just tell our audience, what you are looking at, these are pictures from Jamaica Bay. This is clearly a part of the plane. Can you look and -- is this a piece of...

MCKENNA: Yes, that would be the horizontal stabilizer, the vertical tail fin on the back of the airplane.

WOODRUFF: And this is being brought out of Jamaica Bay, I'm told.

Now, I just want to -- just for those who haven't had a chance to see a map of this area, John F. Kennedy Airport, the runway -- the plane took off going west-northwest and then made a big sort of banking turn to the left. And the difficulties began almost immediately. It flew over this large area of water. It's called the Gateway National Recreation Area -- where you have a number of channels and I assume fairly shallow water -- and came down on what is really a strip of land, this Rockaway Park section of Queens.

I mean, as I'm looking at a map here, it's maybe four blocks wide.


And it is intriguing that they are recovering some of the wreckage from this airplane from the water. Now, what the investigators will want to answer is whether that wreckage ended up in the water because it hit the ground in the Rockaways and then for some reason was flung or bounced out into the water -- which is a possibility, because, as you said, it is a very narrow strip of land -- or did that piece of wreckage and other pieces of wreckage end out somewhat further in the water, which would indicate that they came off the airplane before it hit the Rockaways.

WOODRUFF: Now, we are told that -- again, these are U.S. Coast Guard pictures of Jamaica Bay, which is immediately adjacent to Rockaway Park.

And again, Jim McKenna, what part of the plane is this


MCKENNA: That's the vertical fin.

WOODRUFF: Vertical fin.

MCKENNA: That sticks up at the tail of the airplane.

Interesting to note, as you can see, that the forward edge ahead of the "AA" for American Airlines seems to be fairly clean. There's no gouges or dents in that. Investigators would be looking at a part like that for gouges and dents to see if something else had flown off the airplane earlier and struck the tail, which led that piece to rip away. But that piece appears to be fairly clean.

WOODRUFF: I want to ask you just quickly about the engine's service record. But just very quickly, back on the -- as we watch these pictures -- back on the point that Governor George Pataki made, where he said some have reported, he said, that the pilot may have dumped fuel into the water.

And, at the same time, you know, we have been talking to you today. We have been talking to Peter Goals (ph), another -- an aviation expert. He said and you have just been telling me, this is unlikely.

MCKENNA: Highly unlikely that the pilots would have had any time to even think about dumping fuel. The odds are that, if the Coast Guard has found evidence of jet fuel on the water in Jamaica Bay, it got there because one of the fuel tanks on the airplane was punctured.

Now, I believe that the A300-600, which was the airplane involved, has a fuel tank in the tail of the airplane. If you picture this piece of wreckage that is coming out of the water now as the vertical fin, there are two smaller wings that stick off at relatively right angles at back of the airplane.

Those wings, I believe, contain fuel. Investigators will want to find out where those wings are and, again, if there is fuel on the water, where that fuel may have come from.

WOODRUFF: What about the engine's service record, Jim McKenna?

We have heard that -- from American Airlines itself -- that there's a pretty precise record of when the plane was serviced, but more important, when the engine was serviced: one of the engines apparently serviced very recently; the other one clearly due for service. It was -- what is it -- 9,800 miles -- or hours, I'm sorry -- hours


MCKENNA: The time on the engine is measured in hours since overhaul. The No. 2 engine, which would have been the engine on the right side of the airplane, had more than 9,000 hours since the last overhaul.

WOODRUFF: But it was the left engine that people said, that eyewitnesses said they saw falling out.

MCKENNA: Well, it's an interesting point, because if you talk to an aviation person, somebody who knows airplanes, looking up at an airplane in the sky, if they say the left engine, they will be referring to the engine on what is their right side of the airplane.

So it -- someone who doesn't know airplanes might say the left engine because that is on my left-hand side as the airplane is flying towards me. So the fact that folks are saying the left engine or the right engine still leaves it a little uncertain which engine we are talking about.


MCKENNA: The fact there that were such a disparity in the amount of time on the engine -- it was almost 700 hours on one, almost 10,000 hours on the other -- isn't unusual in any way. Engines on commercial airliners are swapped out regularly so they can undergo inspection. So it's not unusual to have that disparity.

WOODRUFF: This is fairly typical.

All right, Jim McKenna, who is an aviation analyst, a journalist who has been writing about aviation for many, many years, thank you very much.

MCKENNA: Thank you.

WOODRUFF: We have been having the benefit of your insights pretty much all morning and all afternoon. Thank you very much.

We are going to take a break in our live coverage of today's events in the aftermath of this plane crash in New York City. And we will be right back.


BROWN: We want to go quickly to Atlanta.

Miles O'Brien, who deals in aviation matters, reports on aviation matters, has been looking at all of this. And he has got some things to talk about.

But, Miles, let me ask you one quick thing. If we can bring this picture up of the tail, the tail stabilizer -- whatever the technical term is -- again, the fact that it is in pretty much one piece, and the fact -- well, those are different pieces of the plane, OK? So I'm not sure this is going to help me make the point I'm trying to make, or ask the question I'm trying to ask, in any case. But that we didn't see any burn marks on that piece of the plane, that it seemed relatively intact, the theory that it hit the deck and then bounced into the water seemed a little tough for me to buy into at the time. Does it tell you anything, or am I just looking for clues without any idea of what I'm looking at?

MILES O'BRIEN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, I've got to tell you, just looking at that, first glance at it, I think the theory of it bouncing off the ground probably is less likely. It is almost perfectly preserved, as we see the picture there right there of the vertical fin as it comes up.

BROWN: Thank you.

O'BRIEN: And the fact that it is really almost pristine, what does that tell you? Well, clearly, the action in this accident, if you will, was far forward. It's a very big aircraft, an A300 widebody. And in a situation like this, where the plane was probably in a very precipitous fall, it's very likely that the tail area was the last to strike the ground -- perhaps less damage as a result -- or if, in this case, it went into the water.

There is -- it's no coincidence that they put the flight data recorder and the cockpit voice recorder right in the tail section of the aircraft -- statistically speaking, a higher chance, a higher probability of its surviving intact. And beyond that, we would be getting into deep speculation.

John Wiley, an airline captain and instructor, with me on this, do you have anything to add on the fact that the tail seems to be so intact?

JOHN WILEY, AIRLINE PILOT: As you pointed, it does seem to be -- there is no damage along the leading edge. There was no damage along the sides.

The break point -- it almost looks that, if you look at the front of it, the attached point there seems to be pretty good, too. So it appears that the tail separated on impact rather than actually the tail hitting something.

O'BRIEN: All right.

Let's talk a little bit about the A310 -- or, excuse me, A300. And, as we do that, I want to run through a couple of scenarios. First of all, this is an aircraft -- this particular aircraft was bought new by American Airlines in 1988. And we should point out, that's a new aircraft, by anybody's measure, for an airliner.

The engine -- and we have been hearing these numbers -- 9,800 hours of usage. Let's put that into perspective. I believe that engines these days are manufactured to such great tolerances and precision that they can run up to tens of thousands of hours without any significant overhauls. True?

WILEY: Well, the airline will submit a maintenance package to the FAA as to how they are going to maintain the engine. They will also be working with the manufacturer of the engine.

But many airlines go on what's called "on condition," meaning that, as long as the engine meets parameters, as long as the engine is able to produce thrust, as long as the information they are getting from the engine shows that it is still a good engine, they will do maintenance on the wing only until the pilot diagnoses a problem with the engine. At such time as the maintenance or mechanics will find a problem with the engine, they will pull the engine off and take it to the engine shop.

But there have been engines that have been on the wing for many, many years. They are continuing to produce thrust. It's just like, as long as your car doesn't present a problem, you just get a maintenance checkup from the mechanic and it continues cooking.

O'BRIEN: All right, John Wiley, an airline captain and instructor -- John, thank you very much.,

And we are sending it to Aaron.

BROWN: Miles, a quick question, I'm sorry.

The NTSB -- we just got a report -- says it is not precisely sure which black box it has. Are they that different that visually you wouldn't know by looking at it?

O'BRIEN: John, I am going to give that to you. They are slightly different.

WILEY: They are slightly different. Obviously, the cockpit voice recorder...

O'BRIEN: Similar color.

WILEY: Similar color.

The cockpit voice recorder is going to be recording conversation from the crew. It's going to be recording conversation coming in over by air traffic control. Plus, it's got an area mike that is going to be picking up sounds.

O'BRIEN: But its size and shape is slightly different, as I understand it, from the flight data recorder.

WILEY: I'm not sure about that.

O'BRIEN: But we would have to double-check on that.

As we understand it, Aaron, that initial indication was the flight data recorder. I suspect, in this case, there is very good probability that both of these black boxes will be found ultimately.

BROWN: Yes, I think I even feel comfortable agreeing on that. Thank you.

Senior analyst Jeff Greenfield is here. And he's been thinking about all of this and its impact on the city -- Jeff.

JEFF GREENFIELD, CNN SENIOR ANALYST: Well, there's two things.

I mean, in terms of city, the first thing I heard almost immediately was: They have done it again to us.

And you can understand that. This -- as we've been talking about all day, this neighborhood is a middle-class neighborhood, classically New York middle class -- a lot of people who were lost in that September 11 attack, people who made their way through the firefighters, cops, the civil service.

And so, to have this happen, for whatever reason, is a double blow. But the broader point, I think, is that, for not just New York, but I think for a lot of the country, it is as if the terrorists did it again. It is almost impossible to think of this as an accident because the coincidence is so astonishing, even if it turns out to be an accident, which is the basis on which they are going.

It's almost as if, once the terrorists succeed in doing something that nobody thought possible, they get the credit -- and I'm using that word in its worst sense -- for everything else that could happen. And it is part of what makes it so critical for people to overcome it, because any one of us who is about to get on a commercial airliner, as I am, is now thinking: Maybe they have gotten to us in another way.

BROWN: Yes, I'm sure those thoughts are rolling through people's minds. Thank you. We should talk more about this as the night goes on.

A friend of mine is coming to New York from the West Coast and said she is going to fly anyway -- afraid, but she is going to fly. It will be interesting to see how people react.




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