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Gary Younge
Flight to the death

The last of the memorials was on Friday November 9. "I did feel in one way that one chapter of the sadness was over," he says.

On Monday Geraghty went to work at St Francis de Sales church on this peninsula that hangs on to New York by a thread, perching precariously out into the Atlantic, and started to try to recreate some sort of normality. At around 9.18am he was at the altar celebrating mass when he felt "a tremendous vibration". "I could feel it in my legs. I didn't know what it was, but I knew it was something bad. I thought it was another terrorist attack." A young woman ran in and said there was a fire at the end of the street. Geraghty dismissed the congregation. "I told them, 'It's time to go home and find your loved ones.' Planes were weapons in those days."

Just a few blocks away, American Airlines flight 587 had fallen from the sky a few minutes after taking off from nearby John F Kennedy airport on its way to Santo Domingo, in the Dominican Republic. One engine fell on the intersection of Beach and 128th; the other on the petrol station at Beach and 129th. The fuselage descended on Beach and 131st. The Rockaway community was back in mourning. All 260 passengers and crew on board perished, along with five people on the ground. It was the second-deadliest aviation disaster in American history. A government investigation has ruled out terrorism but, five years on, many of the victims' relatives, pilots and at least one congressman remain unconvinced.

As Geraghty rushed out to view the blaze in Queens, Belkis Lora was at JFK hoping for the best. She had dropped off her brother, Jose, a couple of hours earlier. Belkis works at JFK for American Airlines and had secured her brother a standby ticket. Jose used to live in New York but had moved back to the Dominican Republic a few years earlier. One of nine, he was the only boy and had come back to the US for a christening. As Belkis drove him up to the airport, they chatted about his plans for Christmas. "I told him not to forget that he had to come for Christmas, because if he didn't I would come to Santo Domingo to get him," she says.

It was a full flight, so Belkis kept an eye out to make sure Jose would get on. "He was the second from last to get a seat," she says.

"This is his lucky day," one of her colleagues had said. "He's got into first class."

Minutes later came news that a flight had gone down in Queens. But still, Belkis thought her brother really had been lucky. "They said it was a flight from Santo Domingo, not to Santo Domingo. I believed them. When you think that something bad has happened, you think it must be to someone else ."

As Geraghty rushed out to survey the damage, Belkis was reassuring her family - they called to ask her if Jose was on the flight. She told them he was not. Then, as they stood transfixed in front of the television, a pilot came into the work room and said it was flight 587. The bottom fell out of Belkis's world. Her voice quivers and her tears fall as she recalls the moment she realised that Jose had died.

Back in Rockaway, Geraghty looked on, stunned, as the emergency services moved into gear. Rockaway is home to large numbers of firefighters. Those who were off duty and worked elsewhere knew how to operate the equipment, and rushed out in the clothes they had on to help quell the flames. Meanwhile, since it was only two months since September 11, the security services were on alert. "It was unbelievable," Geraghty recalls. "By 11 o'clock they had transformed an empty hall into an operations centre. In less than two hours there were 50 desks with 50 phone lines on them. By 1pm they were feeding the firefi ghters."

Preliminary investigations soon scotched the fear that the crash was an act of terrorism. Three years later, the National Transport Safety Board released a report blaming pilot error as the probable cause.

Flight 587 had taken off at 9.15am, shortly after a Boeing 747 that had created considerable turbulence in its wake. According to the NTSB, the American Airlines co-pilot, Sten Molin, 34, had responded to this turbulence over-aggressively. His "unnecessary and excessive" use of the rudder had caused the plane's tail to fall off , said investigators. The rudder, which is rarely used, swung back and forth four times in 7.5 seconds, the report said. The NTSB also slammed Airbus Industries, which manufactured the plane, insisting that the rudder design was a contributing factor in the crash as well as the airline's pilot-training programme, which encouraged the use of the rudder in such situations.

While the board agreed that the co-pilot was at fault, it split 3-2 over whether the rudder design or the pilot training was more important in the crash, deciding ultimately that the rudder design had a greater impact. According to the NTSB, Molin had been cited twice by senior pilots for "overreacting" over wake turbulence.

But many believe the verdict was wrong. Some claim Airbus had been reluctant to share all it knew about design flaws with the rudder system and that investigators should have probed more deeply. "How is safety served," American Airlines spokesman Bruce Hicks asked the Fort Worth Star-Telegram after the report was released, "how is future aviation safety enhanced by blaming the pilot, who had no way of knowing the design sensitivities of that airplane because Airbus, who did know, never told safety investigators, never told operators and never told pilots all it knew about the system's problems?"

Airbus denied any wrongdoing. "We made a good-faith effort to communicate everything that we knew," said the company's spokesman. "We do not believe the facts of the investigation point to sensitivity of the rudder as contributing to the accident."

A month after the NTSB report came out, a New York congressman, Anthony Weiner, said all the parties had a share in the negligence and introduced the Flight 587 Accountability Act. Weiner pointed out that in 1997, Flight 903, another American Airlines Airbus, almost lost its tail fin in almost identical circumstances. Yet in the four years between the two flights, argued Weiner, not Airbus, nor the airline, nor the Federal Aviation Authority had acted.

Earlier this year, a Canadian plane with a similar rudder design had to return to a Cuban airport shortly after take-off when its rudder broke, prompting the American pilots' union to call for the investigation into flight 587 to be reopened. "We're just trying to renew the interest and concerns about these particular model aircraft," Captain Bob Tamburini, a member of the American Airlines pilots' union, told the Daily News. "We are requesting that the National Transportation Safety Board reopen its investigation based on the information that came out as of late."

Belkis Lora believes there has been a cover-up. "These planes have a problem with their rudder," she insists. "And we don't want more people to die like this. The families of 9/11 know what happened to their loved ones. We don't. But it was not the pilot's fault. If it's not the aircraft, then maybe it was sabotage. I still think there was a good chance that terrorism was involved." This is a common view among Dominicans, for which there is little evidence. But time and again people shrug and ask in disbelief: "How does a plane just fall out of the sky?"

Washington Heights, at the northernmost tip of Manhattan, is home to the largest concentration of Dominicans in the US; the Rockaways, making up a narrow peninsula way to the south, in Queens, are populated by Jewish, Irish and Italian- Americans; the two communities have long been linked by Duke Ellington's famous "A" train. The two-hour ride from one to the other takes you 30 miles through just about everything New York has to offer: through Harlem, the trendy-wealthy Upper East Side, Chelsea, the West Village, the foot of the Brooklyn Bridge, Bedford-Stuyvesant and then on into Queens and finally to Belle Harbor, where the sea surrounds you, every stop begins with the word Beach and the journey ends.

In the bodegas and bustling streets of Washington Heights, Spanish is spoken and English understood. This has become the first resting place for many new Dominican immigrants, somewhere they can network and stay with family. "People come here and fi nd cheap housing," Monsignor Gerard Walsh of St Elizabeth's Roman Catholic Church in Washington Heights told the Los Angeles Times shortly after the crash. "It's close to jobs downtown and they get a good education and get out, hopefully."

Ninety per cent of those on the plane were of Dominican extraction. Flight 587 had acquired something of a cult status in Washington Heights. "Every Dominican in New York has either taken that flight or knows someone who has," Belkis Lora says. "It gets you there early. At home there are songs about it."

At the far end of the subway line stand the twostorey wood-framed houses of the white working class. Cops and firefi ghters refer to the Belle Harbor area as Rockapulco, where happiness is defined as "never getting the sand out of your shoes". "It's impossible to understand unless you live here," says Kathy Blum, 31. "Everybody's Irish or Jewish, or married to someone who is."

"It's one of those neighbourhoods where people grew up in the house that their father grew up in," Geraghty says. "It isn't unusual to find four generations have lived in the same house." In the aftermath of the crash, he bought two huge Dominican flags to hang around the church and 100 small Dominican and American flags for local children to hold when the families of those who died came to Rockaway - to try to make them feel at home in their grief. Up in Washington Heights, makeshift memorials sprang up all over the neighbourhood. Now those two communities were joined by loss.

In Belle Harbor, an elderly couple, Thomas and Helen Concannon, were killed in their home. A couple of blocks away, Gerry Pomponio thought her hairdryer had blown a fuse until she realised a plane had struck the front of her house, crushing the upstairs bedroom where her husband Franco was sleeping and blocking the front door. Gerry grabbed her teenage daughter, Jennifer, and got out through the back door. Franco died. Kathleen Lawler and her son were the other Rockaway victims.

The houses on the two blocks where one of the engines and the fuselage landed have been completely rebuilt. New redbrick buildings and buffed white paving slabs bring cosmetic relief to the scars. On flight 587, myriad immigrant stories of hope foundered. On board was Hilda Yolanda Mayo l, 26, a waitress who had escaped from the north tower of the World Trade Centre and was heading to the Dominican Republic with her mother and children to take her mind off the trauma .

Ana Made, 85, was finally leaving the South Bronx for her native Nizao after she was confi ned to a wheelchair. "Life was too difficult in the Bronx, and here [in the Dominican Republic] she had her community and her family," her daughter-in-law, Alba Mercedes Perez, told Newsday. Not wanting his mother to travel alone in a wheelchair, her 52- year-old son had travelled with her.

And then there was 38-year-old Tito Bautista, who changed his flight at least three times to accommodate the shift patterns of the two jobs he worked at. He was heading to the Dominican Republic to collect his son and bring him back to New York, where he hoped he could give him a better education.

And there was the family of five from Washington Heights that suddenly became the family of two after Roberto Despradel perished with his sons Lorenzo and Robert, leaving behind just his wife Ylsa and their six-year-old daughter Gabriella. "The pain is too much. I cry and I cry," she said. "But I need to be strong for my little girl."

Back in Belle Harbor, which remains under one of Kennedy's flight paths, residents cast a wary eye overhead every time they hear a roar. "Is that a good plane or a bad plane?" children ask their parents. Says Father Geraghty, "We d on't know what to say."

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