NEW YORK - An American Airlines jetliner en route to the Dominican Republic with 255 people aboard broke apart and crashed moments after takeoff today from Kennedy Airport, setting homes ablaze. There were no known survivors aboard the plane and at least six people were missing on the ground.
Bush administration officials said the FBI believed an explosion occurred aboard the jet, and witnesses reported hearing one and seeing an engine fall off. But investigators suggested the noise was caused by a catastrophic mechanical failure, and a senior administration official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said: "It's looking like it's not a terrorist attack."
Still, the city -- on edge after the Sept. 11 attack in which hijacked airliners brought down the World Trade Center -- was put on high alert in the minutes and hours after the crash.
Fighter jets flew over the scene in the Rockaway Beach section of Queens. All three metropolitan-area airports -- Kennedy, LaGuardia and Newark, N.J. -- were closed for several hours, and international flights were diverted to other cities. Major bridges and tunnels into New York were also closed for hours. The United Nations was partially locked down, and the Empire State Building was evacuated.
Flight 587, a European-made Airbus A300 with 246 passengers and nine crew members aboard, went down at 9:17 a.m. in clear, sunny weather in the waterfront neighborhood 15 miles from Manhattan. The densely populated section is home to many firefighters who were among the dead and the rescuers at the Trade Center.
Witnesses reported hearing an explosion and seeing an engine and other debris falling off the flaming twin-engine jet as it came down. An engine was found intact in a parking lot at a Texaco station, missing the gas tanks by no more than 6 feet. Part of a wing appeared to be in Jamaica Bay, just offshore, Mayor Rudolph Giuliani said.
A plume of thick, black smoke could be seen miles away; flames billowed high above the treetops.
"I don't believe there are any survivors at this point," Giuliani said. At midafternoon, he said 132 bodies had been recovered.
Roberto Valentin, a Dominican ambassador at large, said he believed 90 percent of the passengers were Dominican.
The mayor also said at least six people were missing in the neighborhood. Another 35 people who were hurt on the ground were treated at a hospital for minor injuries, mostly smoke inhalation.
Four houses were destroyed, four were seriously damaged, and as many as a dozen others sustained lesser damage, the mayor said.
Some people used garden hoses to try to contain the flames. Others grabbed their children and fled their homes in terror.
"People were screaming and running," said Janet Barasso, who wept as she recounted fleeing from her home a block from the crash site with her two sons, ages 10 and 16. "I thought we were being bombed, because I didn't see the plane."
Jennifer Rivara said she was looking out a window from her home about five blocks from the scene. "I saw pieces falling out of the sky," she said. "And then I looked over to my left and I saw this huge fireball, and the next thing I know, I hear this big rumbling sound. I ran to the door and all I saw was big black smoke."
In Washington, White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said there were no "unusual communications" from the cockpit. And a senior administration official said that no threats against airplanes had been received.
The National Transportation Safety Board was designated the lead agency in the investigation, signaling that authorities have no information other than that a mechanical malfunction -- not a terrorist attack -- brought down the plane.
A law enforcement source at the scene told The Associated Press that the likelihood of a mechanical problem stemmed from the fact that flames were seen shooting out of the left engine and that witnesses reported the plane had difficulty climbing and was banking to the left.
The plane's engines were made by General Electric Co.
Jet engines have been known to break up catastrophically, throwing shrapnel through a plane. In 1989, United Airlines DC-10 crashed in Sioux City, Iowa, killing 112 people, after the metal hub that holds the engine's fan blades shattered and ruptured the jet's hydraulic lines.
In 1979, an American Airlines DC-10 crashed on takeoff in Chicago, killing more than 270 people, after one of its engines broke loose and severed hydraulic lines along the wings.
The NTSB said investigators recovered the Airbus flight data recorder, one of the jetliner's two "black boxes."
In Washington, President Bush met with advisers, seeking details of the crash. A U.S. official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said intelligence agencies, the FBI and the Federal Aviation Administration were reviewing all recent intelligence for any signs that terrorism was involved.
Giuliani canceled his morning events and headed to the scene, where he said: "People should remain calm. We're just being tested one more time and we're going pass this test, too."
"Now we should focus all our efforts on finding survivors," Giuliani said.
"The first thing that went through my mind is, 'Oh, my God.' I just passed the church in which I've been to, I think, 10 funerals here. Rockaway was particularly hard hit. The disproportionate number of the people we lost -- not just the police and fire, but even the workers at the World Trade Center -- were from Rockaway and Staten Island."
Triage centers were set up a high school and an elementary school, both of which were closed for the Veterans Day holiday.
A hospital near the crash site said it treated about 15 people for smoke inhalation and several others for abrasions. All the injured had been on the ground, not the plane, and none appeared to be critically injured.
The plane was lying on top of about 12 homes, said Ed Williams, community liaison for Rep. Gregory Meeks. A priest blessed about 20 bodies that were being laid out on the street.
"This community was hit so hard by the Trade Center," said Fern Liberman, who lives a few blocks away. "A lot of firefighters, policemen and we had a lot of people at Cantor Fitzgerald. We were hit very hard. Just on the heels of one horror, another."
The plane had been scheduled to leave at 8 a.m. and arrive in Santo Domingo at 12:48 p.m. According to the FAA, it took off at 9:14 a.m. and crashed three minutes later.
"First I heard a big explosion. then I saw flames come out from behind the plane. And then a whole wing with the engine fell off," said Antonio Villela, a construction worker.
Jackie Weiss, 50, a secretary at Rockaway High School, said: "I'm really devastated. My own son was telling me, when I was upset by the World Trade Center, 'But you didn't lose any family members.' But seeing something like this ... I feel the world is coming to an end."
In the Dominican Republic, relatives of passengers crowded Santo Domingo's airport, sobbing and grasping each other after hearing about the crash.
"Oh my God!" said Miriam Fajardo, crying after being told that her sister and three nephews were aboard. "I hadn't seen them in eight years. Now they're gone."
The Trade Center was destroyed by two Boeing 767s hijacked out of Boston's Logan Airport. One of the planes was operated by American, the other by United.
Airbus said American Airlines has a fleet of 35 A300s.
In 1996, TWA Flight 800 left Kennedy Airport for Paris and crashed off Long Island, killing all 230 people aboard. The NTSB concluded the jet was destroyed by a fuel tank explosion, probably caused by a wiring spark.
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