Remembering America's Second-Deadliest Plane Crash

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Just two months after 9/11, an airplane bound for the Dominican Republic plummeted into the water near JFK International Airport. On this tenth anniversary, relatives of the victims look back on a disaster the rest of the country has all but forgotten.

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Reuters

At 9:30 a.m. on November 12, 2001, Hector Algarroba was eating breakfast in a diner below his Queens apartment when he learned that an American Airlines flight departing for the Dominican Republic had just crashed. The owner turned to Algarroba and asked if he knew anyone on the plane.

In fact, he did. Earlier that morning, Algarroba had driven his parents to JFK International Airport. Hipolito and Ubencia Algarroba, both longtime New York City residents, were planning to return to their home province of Bani in the Dominican Republic, and as they walked through the customs line, Algarroba impulsively asked a customs agent to call his mother back for one more good-bye. " They had raised three children and were going back home for good," Algarroba says.

On hearing about the crash, Algarroba rushed out of the diner and headed toward the the intersection of Beach 131st Street and Newport Avenue in Queens's Belle Harbor neighborhood. There he witnessed the fire, soot, and carnage firsthand. He spent the rest of the day searching desperately for answers, at one point even interrupting Mayor Rudy Giuliani's press conference to seek assistance. "I saw the plane on the ground," he recalls. "I saw body bags, I live it every day. I live it every day. I just don't know how to explain it."

The second-deadliest plane crash in American history took place just two months after 9/11, when American Airlines Flight 587 to Santo Domingo plummeted almost immediately after taking off from JFK, killing 265 passengers, crew members, and people on the ground. Ten years later, despite the magnitude of this disaster, it has been largely forgotten, overshadowed by the immensity of 9/11.

But for family and neighbors of the victims, the crash is still a visceral wound, and closure remains elusive. "It doesn't matter how many anniversaries pass by," says New York City Councilman Ydanis Rodriguez of Washington Heights, one of the neighborhoods most affected by the crash. "No one but the family members will be able to understand how hard it was that day and how hard it will continue to be."

***

Robert Benzon dreaded going back to New York. The 17-year veteran of the National Transportation Safety Board, summoned from Washington to investigate the crash, was somewhat relieved to see the vertical stabilizer fin of the doomed airplane being pulled out of Jamaica Bay as he and his team drove to the site. He hoped this ruled out what he and many others were already fearing: terrorism. Again?

But Benzon couldn't shake the thought. He had just been in New York just one month before, digging through the rubble of what was the World Trade Center looking for flight recorders that would never be found from planes that had been used as missiles. And now, the investigation of another airplane catastrophe awaited him.

For Benzon and his team, the numbers didn't add up. American Airlines Flight 587's three-and-a-half-hour trip to Santo Domingo ended only two-and-a-half minutes and four miles southwest from its takeoff. The National Weather Service had reported blue skies with 10 miles of visibility . Hundreds of eyewitnesses gave accounts of the burning engines separating from the plane and other explosions that showered chunks of metal onto a five-block radius of Belle Harbor.  

Benzon had been a lead investigator in several high profile air crashes, including the 1996 TWA Flight 800 crash that had killed 230 people off the coast of Long Island. But the Flight 587 disaster was especially difficult to investigate.  

"Usually we can section off an accident scene, but there were thousands of people from all over the neighborhood and the city, coming to see what happened," Benzon says. "A lot of firefighters and police guys living there were coming up to me saying, 'People from almost every few blocks around here lost somebody on 9/11, and now this.'"  

Something remained the same for Benzon: the stench. "All scenes smell like the same mix of pungent, burned material: jet fuel, hydraulic fluid, and of course human smells always come from the wreckage," Benzon says. "In this case, the fire was so bad that the deceased were barely recognizable as human beings."

By listening to the flight data recorder, Benzon's team was able to step "virtually into the cockpit " from beginning to end of the flight. But it was hard to find clues in the short conversation.  

At about 9:13 a.m., the JFK air traffic controller had cleared Flight 587 for takeoff. On the tape, this was followed an interaction between pilot Edward States and First Officer Sten Molin --  a brief, somewhat playful conversation about their plane's distance from a Japan Airlines Boeing 747.

"You happy with that separation?" Molin asked States.  

"We'll be all right once we get rollin'. He's supposed to be five miles by the time we're airborne, that's the idea," States replied.  

"So you're happy," Molin concluded.  

Communication between the two men in the cockpit and the controller was normal over the next minute-and-a-half, as Flight 587 started its takeoff. At 9:15 a.m., the air traffic controller instructed them to steer the airborne plane left, heading 30 miles southeast of JFK. At that point, States asked Molin, "...little wake turbulence, huh?" Molin calmly replied, "Yeah." Molin set the airspeed to 250 knots - the maximum for a flight below 10,000 feet. On the voice recorder, a thump, a click, and two thumps could be heard.  

Suddenly, Molin requested "max power" in a strained voice and States asked him, "Are you all right?" Molin quickly replied, "Yeah, I'm fine." The noise energy levels of the cockpit increased and a series of bumps could be heard, along with States's voice ordering, "Hang onto it. Hang onto it." During this time, the voice recorder captured a snap that NTSB officials concluded was the sound of the vertical stabilizer fin separating from the plane.  

Six seconds later, Molin emitted a grunt-like noise and yelled, "Holy s--t."

Just four seconds after that, a noise similar to a stall-warning chime sounded. "What the hell are we into?" Molin exclaimed. "We're stuck in it."  

"Get out of it, get out of it!" States shouted back.  

The recording ended two seconds later.  

The investigation into Flight 587 quickly shifted its focus from terrorism to Molin. The vertical stabilizer fin's separation from the craft before the crash indicated that great stress had been placed on the component. The NTSB's final conclusion holds that Molin used "unnecessary and aggressive" rudder controls to stabilize the airplane from turbulence it encountered in the wake of the Japan Airline Boeing 747 that States and Molin discussed just prior to takeoff.

"The wake turbulence was pretty benign. A passenger wouldn't even realize it, and that sort of thing happens all the time," Benzon says. "The first officer just reacted wrongly with the rudder system." The NTSB concluded that American Airlines training methods were to blame for Molin's use of the rudder, which they say stressed the vertical stabilizer fin with nearly two times the normal amount of load pressure.

Benzon believes that some lasting good came out of the investigation. In response, American Airlines revised its training manuals to show that manipulating the rudder system at any speed can do damage to the plane. The Airbus A300 -- no longer used by American Airlines -- had a "sensitive rudder system," and after the crash, the design was changed on those planes. But safety training for airline pilots remains a significant issue in a period when increased technology in the cockpit has put an even greater onus on safety. That consideration, says former NTSB Chairman Jim Hall, has been brushed aside a bit since the accident.

"I think it had a short-term effect in regard to the training of pilots, particularly with the use of the rudder because that was the primary issue," Hall says. "That accident was overshadowed by 9/11, and the significance and lessons learned from the Flight 587 crash really didn't get the attention I feel like they deserved."

***

On Saturday, there will be a 10th anniversary gathering at the Flight 587 Memorial established in Belle Harbor. During a recent nighttime visit, the waves were crashing against the beach, the salt air was crisp, and the boardwalk was vacant; a lone man in a sweatsuit was jogging in the dark. The center of the memorial, which lists the names of all 265 victims, reads, "Despues No Quiero Mas Que Paz," or "Afterwards I Only Want Peace," a nod to the fact that 90 percent of the victims were Dominican. A plane flew overhead, veering off in the direction of the water, providing an eerie reminder of what happened that Monday morning.

Seventeen blocks away, there's a gray stone dedicated to the crash with a lone tree planted next to it. Aside from the five new homes that were built after those properties took the brunt of the crash, the stone and tree are the only signs that anything ever happened on this sleepy street.

For 20-year-old Bradley States, the son of Flight 587 pilot Edward States, this anniversary is a chance to remember his father not just as a pilot but as a family man, a New York Giants fan, and a hands-on teacher who loved telling his young sons and their friends how a plane flies. After Sunday, Bradley will have spent as many years living without his father as he did living with him.

He realizes that this anniversary may be less meaningful to the general public than it is to him. But that doesn't bother him. "I can't control what people pay attention to and what people don't," says States, a math and education major at Elmira College in Elmira, New York. "My family and I, we all pay respect to him in the way we go about our lives. Every day we go out and try to make him proud."

Algarroba, meanwhile, is serving underprivileged children in the Dominican Republic through a foundation he calls HHS after three generations of his family (his father, himself, and his own son, Steven). The days after the crash were a dark time for him, a period in which he left his home only to talk to the medical examiner. His parents, whose deaths were confirmed a month after the crash, were among the last passengers to be identified. He's tried to move on from that day, but he still holds a service in Bani every November 12 for the victims.

"It's a day when I remember what got me here, what gave me the upbringing to be a respectful, law-abiding citizen, the ability to pass that on to others, to value humanity, and to always give back even if you don't have much to give back," he says. "But it's not much different for me than other days. I live it every day."

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Presented by

Timothy Bella and Benjamin Fearnow

Timothy Bella is a web producer and enterprise journalist in New York. Benjamin Fearnow is a freelance journalist living in New York.

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