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 World Trade Center attacks hit Belle Harbor hard. Some 70 residents--firemen, cops, traders at Cantor Fitzgerald--perished in the disaster. A number of them worshipped at St. Francis church, where Mass was being said when the plane hit nearby. "I had been to, I think, 10 funerals there," said Giuliani. After extinguishing the last of the burning houses, four firemen, still in full gear, walked a few blocks north to pay their respects at the home of Richie Allen, a comrade who died in the Trade Center and whose memorial service was held just three days before the American crash.

Carole Keller, a teacher whose house sits a few blocks from the crash site, feared for her daughter Suzanne, who had been scheduled to leave J.F.K. at 7:15 a.m. with her new husband for a honeymoon in Antigua. Suzanne's wedding was originally set for Sept. 14, but was postponed because the guest list was full of firemen and police officers. After several nerve-racking hours glued to the television, Keller got a phone call confirming her daughter was safe and on another flight.

In Washington Heights, Santa Mejia got no such news. She thought her cousin Maria Rodriguez had boarded an earlier flight but discovered she was on the doomed plane, which left an hour late--delayed by new security procedures. Many of the victims lived in, or were tied to, the Dominican community of Washington Heights, atop the bluffs north of the Harlem River and east of the Hudson. Dominicans are recent arrivals, supplanting generations of Puerto Ricans, Italians, Jews and Irish.

Washington Heights lost scores of residents in the World Trade Center attack, and now Flight 587 would add at least 40 more to that toll. "There's no sense of security in the community anymore," said Mejia. Immigration status is a pressing concern for many of the friends and families of the victims. Some fear that if they accompany the body of a relative to the Dominican Republic, they may not be able to return. Nor were many in the community convinced that the crash was an accident.

Commercial airliners are not designed to be whipped side to side, which left investigators puzzled as to how a highly automated jet that is virtually self-correcting got into that fatal position. Was it turbulence from the aircraft ahead? Some two minutes before AA 587 lifted off, a Japan Airlines 747, the world's biggest passenger plane, took off from the same runway, headed in the same direction. All jets produce a vortex of air, a mini-tornado, off each wing tip as they travel, and 747s can cause serious problems for smaller planes trailing in their wake. But the A300 is not a small plane, and the vortex problems are well known. The American Airlines plane was farther than the prescribed four miles from the JAL "heavy," as wide-body planes are called by aviators. One of the American pilots noted "wake turbulence" as the doomed jet flew through the 747's slipstream, but the force produced by the vortex should not have been strong enough to push the A300 into peril. An Airbus pilot told TIME: "It's a heavy behind a heavy. The issue of wake turbulence in this crash is a red herring."

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