A Neighborhood's Nightmare

The streets of Rockaway Peninsula in Long Island were filled with mourners driving to yet another World Trade Center memorial service when the plane dropped out of the sky.

From Far Rockaway to Breezy Point, 71 firefighters and office workers had died in the Sept. 11 attack. Now, at 9:15 a.m., Tara Davan, daughter of First Deputy Commissioner Bill Feehan, the most senior FDNY victim, was leaving to pick up her kids. She heard shouting from the men working on her roof. "Oh, my God, watch out!" one said, seeing an explosion in the sky. "It's a plane!" "Heads up!" another said, jumping off a ladder and diving to the ground. "It's going to come down!"

The dull roar grew louder overhead, and Tara walked outside thinking maybe the Concorde was landing. Then the house shuddered and a mushroom cloud of black and gray smoke rose two blocks away. Mothers holding kids began popping out of their doorways on 127 St. "Call 911! Call 911!" many shouted.

Tara called her husband Brian, a firefighter. "Brian, you're not going to believe this," she said frantically, "but a plane crashed a few blocks away." "What are you talking about?" he said. "I'm not kidding you," she yelled. "A plane just went down! They've done it again!"

American Airlines Flight 587, with 246 passengers and nine crew members aboard, had taken a nose-dive and wiped out a half block at 131 St. and Newport in Belle Harbor. Its two engines dropped three blocks away, one without much incident in a gas station driveway, and a wing dropped into Jamaica Bay.

Six houses were obliterated and another ten suffered heavy fire damage where the main fuselage struck. "Nobody survived that crash," said Tara's husband Brian, who responded to the scene. "I covered 30 bodies with sheets," he said. "They're all charred, you can't tell gender or age or nothing."

"That block where the crash happened," said firefighter Rich McDonagh, who lives near the crash site, "four or five people already died at the Trade Center. They just got hit a second time. We're feeling like the victims of another terrorist attack."

The number of victims on the ground won't be known till at least tomorrow, but more people than normal may've been home for the Veteran's Day holiday. However, two blocks from the crash, St. Francis De Sales elementary school, which Tara's kids attend, sat empty thanks to the holiday. By 1:30, 57 bodies were lined up in a temporary morgue. "There's just too many coincidences," Brian said, wondering whether terrorist had struck again. "This is going to send the country into a depression if this keeps up."

The residents of Rockaway would spend another day making jittery phone calls. Tara called her sister. "I keep wanting to call dad," she told Liz. "I want to talk to him and tell him what happened. I know he'd be here. He would've been down there directing the whole thing." A friend from work called Tara. "9:15 in the morning is not a good time for you," the woman said to Tara, recalling the time Sept. 11 that they had turned on the television to watch the towers collapse. Once more, Tara had narrowly escaped. "I feel very lucky again that I've been spared," she said. "Last time it was my dad and not my husband and brother-in-law. Now, it wasn't my block."

Nerves in this tight, predominantly Irish beach community, raw for two months, were just beginning to recover. "If it's an accident, it might make it easier to accept," said Ann Erhard, 31, who had been working at her computer when the power went dead and the house shook. "If it's terrorism, it's just that much harder. We were just starting to recover. People were smiling a little bit more on the streets."

Another hard-hit Belle Harbor family is the Allens, who live across the street from the impact site. The body of their son Richie, a rookie firefighter, has yet to be recovered from the trade center collapse. "It is hellish for them," says Joe Montaperto, a fireman who lives a few blocks away. "Their kid is still in the rubble. This area got hit so hard on Sept. 11 that my reaction is, how could this happen in Rockaway of all places? It's not even anger anymore, it's like suspended animation; you're numb and you just wish it was over."