If Not Terror, What Was It?

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NYPD/AP

Belle Harbor ablaze after the crash of Flight 587

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.

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.

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