The Victims Of Flight 587

When Navy Petty Officer Ruben Rodriguez, 32, set foot on dry land last Saturday after seven months at sea on board the USS Enterprise, all he could think of was getting home to the Dominican Republic to see the infant son he hardly knew. Seven-month-old Omar was born 11 days before Rodriguez shipped out on the Enterprise at the end of April. His two other sons, Ruben, 5, and Miguel Angel, 3, were aching for their father. Rodriguez's return home had been delayed by the war, and when he called his wife and sons from the ship, Miguel Angel didn't want to speak to him. "Don't call, don't call me," he told his father, "just come home."

Rodriguez was returning from the most dangerous assignment of his nine-year Navy career. On the morning of Sept. 11, the USS Enterprise had been cruising back to port after a tour in the Middle East. When news of the attacks reached the ship, some crew members report they could "almost feel the ship turning around." The ship was abruptly sent to the Arabian Sea near Afghanistan, becoming the first U.S. aircraft carrier deployed as part of the war on terror. The fighter jets that opened the air war on Afghanistan in early October launched off its deck.

Just before Rodriguez disembarked from the ship in Norfolk, Va., a local television reporter asked him how it felt to be going home. "Oh it's so exciting," he told the camera grinning widely, as he looked out at the cheering crowd of thousands gathered on shore to greet the ship. "America, we love you so much! All my family, I missed you so much!" Two of his older sisters were waving from the shore, waiting to drive him back to Brooklyn where his parents and several of his six older siblings lived. He planned to spend a day with his family and tour Ground Zero, before flying home to the Dominican Monday for a two-week reunion with his wife and sons.

"Where's my ticket, when's my flight?" he pestered his sister Rebeca moments after he hugged her hello on shore. Rebeca, a travel agent had booked his Monday morning seat on American Airlines Flight 587 to Santo Domingo. Rodriguez couldn't get there fast enough, "He would have pushed that plane if he had to," says his older brother Felipe.

Rodriguez never made it home. Minutes after flight 587 took off from JFK airport in New York, Rodriguez was killed along with all 260 others on board. In a hazy sequence of events, the plane's tail separated from the body, and both engines detached, sending the plane plunging into a fiery nightmare in a residential neighborhood in Far Rockaway, Queens. Speculation of terrorism arose, but investigators have so far found no evidence suggesting it was anything but a tragic accident.

Packed in Rodriguez's luggage were two toy double decker buses he purchased in London for his sons. He'd also packed ten undeveloped rolls of film, mostly shots of his expedition on the Enterprise to show his sons where he'd been during his absence. On the Enterprise, Rodriguez worked as an Aviation Boatswain Mate, refueling F-14 Tomcats, F/A-18 Hornets, among others on the crowded air wing of the ship. The job is considered one of the most dangerous in the world, even by Navy standards. Any break in the precise choreography that governs the flight deck of the 75-plane air wing can be disastrous. Rodriguez often worked in the pitch dark amid the chopper blades, low flying jets and forceful exhaust streams. His shifts could stretch to 18 hours in the sweltering heat of the Arabian Sea.

The USS Enterprise deployed as many as 80 combat missions a day during its assignment, and its planes dropped some 800,000 pounds of explosives on Afghanistan. But there was not a single war casualty among the 5,500 servicemen and women on board the carrier. When Rodriguez stepped off the ship, he bent over and touched the ground to confirm he was safe.

On Monday night news of the plane crash reached Rodriguez's family members on either end of the of the stretch of Atlantic that separates the Dominican from New York. In San Luis, three-year-old Miguel Angel was upset with his mother. "Where's Daddy?" he kept asking. "You said he was coming home."

In Washington Heights, a Dominican neighborhood in New York City, Rodriguez's older brother Felipe was among a crowd of mourners gathered at a community center. He clutched a photograph of his brother in his Navy uniform. "All we want is to get his body back so we can mourn properly," he told reporters. Rodriguez was the youngest of seven siblings, and his sense of humor and appetite for fun made him everybody's pet.

"He still acted like a little guy," she says Rodriguez's niece, Gizelle Cabrar, 18. "He was always running around the house and playing Nintendo with us." Rodriguez's brother Elias adds "He was like somebody flying all the time. If he was at your side, for sure you will be smiling or laughing because he was always making jokes." Elias recalls that when they were younger, Ruben had an ever-expanding menagerie of pets, including a pet dove that he kept trying to set free in a park near their house. The dove always returned to him.

THE GUZMAN FAMILY

Miguel Guzman will always be haunted by the last conversation he had with his 8-year-old son Johnny. The call came just minutes before the child boarded a doomed flight bound for the Guzman family's homeland of the Dominican Republic. "My baby, Johnny, didn't want to go," says Guzman through tears. "He called me at 7:45 from the airport and he said, 'Papi, Papi, I want to stay with you. I don't want to go on the airplane.' I said, 'Enjoy yourself, honey, go on a nice vacation.'"

Guzman, a taxi driver, can't stop thinking about what might have been if his wife Norma, 44, and his three children had not boarded American Airlines Flight 587. On the way to the airport, the family's car broke down. Guzman borrowed a car to use in place of his own. He is now tormented by his resolve to get the family off on their vacation. "There was to be a party waiting for Norma in the Dominican Republic," says Guzman. "Her mother and her siblings [all 21 of them; 4 on her mother's side and 16 on her father's] were waiting for her. But she never came. When I called to tell them what happened, they simply didn't believe what I was saying."

Cuco Valoy, Norma's father and the children's grandfather, has his own frustrations. Fifteen-year-old Glenda called him at 7 a.m. on Monday morning and said, 'Hi, it's Glenda,' but the phone cut off and the grandparents never heard from their granddaughter again. "It is so frustrating because to me it is a farewell that never came," say Valoy, a noted salsa and merengue singer from the Dominican Republic. "On Sept. 11 we cried with the other families, but now we know the level of pain and what it feels like when it is one of yours."

KATHLEEN AND CHRISTOPHER LAWLER

They are the kind of family many Americans would like to be. Kathleen and Thomas Lawler met young, married young and set about raising four kids in the cozy beachfront community of Belle Harbor, in Queens. Their oldest child, Christopher, graduated from Loyola College and studied law at St. John's University; Brendan, 21, attends Spring Hill College in Alabama; Katelyn and Jennifer both attend Bishop Kearney High School and are popular basketball players. Kathleen's mother, Anne, and her six brothers and sisters (and spouses) live nearby on the Rockaway Peninsula making it easy to meet on the beach as they do annually for a fourth of July party.

Then on Nov. 12, Kathleen, 48, and her 24-year-old son Christopher suddenly disappeared from this picture. Their home was completely destroyed in the fire caused by the crash of American Airlines Flight 587. Kathleen, whose cousin Peter was one of the first firefighters on the scene, was regarded as an exemplary mother, always available and eager to help with neighborhood or community events like fund-raisers for the Roman Catholic Diocese of Brooklyn where she worked. Christopher, who lived at home in a basement apartment, loved Irish music and bands like U2, and was dating a local girl.

For the town of Belle Harbor, last week's tragedy was anguish poured into the gaping wound of Sept. 11, which claimed the lives of 70 people from Rockaway, including many firefighters and police officers. "It's really hard to logically process the two incidents as separate incidents for people in Rockaway," says Marina Callaghan, a longtime resident of Belle Harbor. "I think as much as we'd like to, it's hard. We could look across Jamaica Bay, and look at the World Trade Centers. We did that a million times a day from our view. Now, if you were in the city, you could look across, and see Rockaway burning down."

One of the locals lost on Sept. 11th was Charles Heeran, an employee of Cantor Fitzgerald and close friend of Christopher Lawler. "The town is just crushed," says 21 year old Willy Blum, Kathleen Lawler's nephew who attends college at Christopher's alma mater. "You never know what you're going to wake up to."

The Victims Of Flight 587 | News