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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The takeoff to the northwest into a gentle breeze was uneventful. The plane banked left over the bay on its way south. But soon Captain Edward States and First Officer Sten Molin knew they were in trouble. On the plane's cockpit voice recorder, investigators heard the plane shudder once, 107 sec. into the flight, then a second time 14 sec. later. Something had caused the airliner to wobble, and the pilots tried to straighten it out. A few seconds later, the A300 was knocked sideways, viciously, twice from one direction and then from the opposite side.

As the pilots struggled to control the jet, it banked steeply to the left, the nose pitching down 30[degrees]. The voice recorder continues for a few more seconds, and the pilots are overheard trying to cope with the careening aircraft, but at some point the tail ripped loose, the engines most likely soon after. The pilots "had no idea what happened," says former NTSB investigator Chuck Leonard. "There's no signal that comes on saying TAIL GONE." Leonard speculates that the missing tail produced the whiplike swings. "The aerodynamic forces must have been preposterously wild," he says.

These gyrations were noted by eyewitnesses on the ground. "It sounded like the Concorde," says Dan Sugrue, an employee of the energy company KeySpan, who was eating breakfast in a diner near the crash site. The sound made him turn, and he saw the still ascending plane as it started to "ride sideways," losing what appeared to be a piece of a wing, a sight other eyewitnesses reported. "And then just, boom, straight down into the ground," Sugrue says.

Initially, investigators suspected trouble with the General Electric engines that had landed a block apart, one on a boat parked in a driveway, the other in a gas station, barely missing the pumps. But inspectors found no signs that the engines had failed or ingested birds or thrown a turbine blade through the cowling. Then, late on the afternoon of the crash, the Coast Guard fished the jet's vertical stabilizer--the upright part of the tail--out of the bay. Television reporters kept noting that the tail seemed curiously undamaged.

They were wrong. The tail and rudder assembly was severely damaged where it connected with the fuselage. (The rudder is the thin, vertical part that runs along the back of the tail and keeps the plane flying straight.) When the A300 got too far sideways, aerodynamic forces apparently tore the tail and rudder off the plane like a page yanked from a book. The same forces popped the engines off their pylons.

The tragedy traumatically linked two neighborhoods at opposite ends of a city whose history is shaped by an ever-shifting tide of immigrant groups. The jet struck Belle Harbor, a little seaside paradise separated by water from the city's hubbub, and jealously guarded by its residents. It's a place teeming with cops, fire fighters and other civil servants, many descended from Irish immigrants who began arriving after the Civil War.

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