After The Crash: If Not Terror, What Was It?

With no evidence of sabotage in the New York City crash, the focus shifts to the plane and its pilots

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In the first moments after American Airlines Flight 587 went down last Monday, the unthinkable seemed to be happening again: an airliner crashes in New York City, Air Force fighters scramble, tunnels are closed, the Empire State Building is evacuated, and the United Nations is locked down. As sirens wailed and hundreds of fire fighters converged on the scene, 8 million New Yorkers tensed with a fear that they were still in the terrorists' cross hairs. "Be brave...Stay calm," urged Mayor Rudy Giuliani, reprising a sickeningly familiar role as a dozen homes blazed around him.

Within hours, authorities began to downplay terrorism as a possible cause of the crash, and the National Transportation Safety Board--not the FBI--took charge of the investigation. "All information we have currently is that this is an accident," said NTSB chairwoman Marion Blakey on Monday--and every day throughout the week. For many families, though, what was no longer unthinkable still became unbearable: an Airbus 300 jet on its way to Santo Domingo in the Dominican Republic convulsed in midair, flinging away its tail and engines and augering into the Rockaway Peninsula in Queens, just across Jamaica Bay from John F. Kennedy International Airport. The crash killed all 260 people on board and five on the ground--the worst toll for a U.S. carrier since another American flight crashed in Chicago in 1979, killing 275--and it set ablaze several blocks of the seaside community of Belle Harbor.

In the gruesome recalibration of catastrophe that we have made since Sept. 11, the assumption that Flight 587 was an accident brought some measure of relief to the city and the nation. Yet days later, relief turned to apprehension across a country poised for its busiest week in the air. How did a jetliner with a solid safety record, maintained by the nation's biggest airline and flown in perfect weather by two experienced pilots, break into pieces less than 3 min. after takeoff? What would cause the tail of a plane that has been thoroughly tested for years to snap off? Was this a singular event, or are American's 34 remaining A300s susceptible?

The answers will not be known for months, but in the meantime the Federal Aviation Administration late last week began to focus on the rudder-and-tail assembly, which is made of a carbon-fiber composite rather than the metal used in most jets. The FAA ordered an inspection of the tail section of all Airbus 300s as well as the smaller 310s. American is the only U.S. passenger airline to fly A300s, although UPS and FedEx also use them.

Flight 587 was full when it left J.F.K. at 9:14 a.m., in contrast to the half-empty planes leaving from much of the country. Dominicans may move to the U.S. for a better life, but they love their homeland, and AA 587 was a virtual shuttle service between those two worlds. It was highly profitable for American, because it had no direct competition. It was filled with families such as Mariana and Lasar Flores and their son Isaiah, 2, on their way to visit Mariana's sister. And there was Ramona Pimentel, on her way home from a visit to New York City, where she had worked for many years.

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