Sunday, November 9, 2008

Sunday Afternoon in Rockaway: The Flight 587 Memorial

This afternoon we made our way out to Rockaway from Dumbo Books HQ, getting the B48 bus on Lorimer Street and Metropolitan Avenue and taking it down through Williamsburg's Latino and Hasidic neighborhoods, then down Franklin Avenue in Prospect Heights to Eastern Parkway, where we got the 2 train to the Junction.

There, on Nostrand Avenue by Flatbush Avenue, we got on the first stop of the familiar Q35 bus - now an MTA bus, no longer part of the Green Bus Lines - and traveled down past our old neighborhood, then over the Gil Hodges Memorial Bridge to the last stop at Beach 116th Street, across from where we spent many late weekend nights at the torn-down Ram's Horn Diner.

We walked down 116th past many new stores and some stores we've known practically all our lives, like Brown's Hardware and Rogoff's variety store and the newsstand and Carvel and the Rockaway Surf Shop. (We sometimes hung out at Beach 90th to watch our friends who owned surfboards; we just had - still have - a Rockaway Surf Shop T-shirt.)

With both sets of grandparents and many of our Brooklyn College friends living nearby in Rockaway Park and Belle Harbor, and being summer residents of the Rockaways throughout our childhood, we spent many hours on this block in stores, restaurants and even a movie theater (The Park) that no longer exist.

(See the estimable Kevin Walsh's take on "Sweet 116" on his not-to-be-missed Forgotten New York website; we are grateful for some of the pics here, but he has much more and better ones at FNY.)

Our first apartment, a fifth-floor studio facing Jamaica Bay, was two blocks away on Beach 118th Street and the boardwalk. It was October 1979 when we moved in. Our elderly neighbors, we later discovered, knowing our parents were moving to Florida, were shocked that a family would leave "a 15-year-old boy" alone. (We were 28 and our first book had been published that spring.)

The rent was $240 a month in 1979, and over a dinner of our favorites, salmon croquettes and baked apples, at her apartment on Shore Front Parkway at Beach 105th Street, Grandma Ethel asked us what we had in mind, paying so much money. From the large window where we put our twin bed, we would watch the planes - including the supersonic Concorde - land and take off from Kennedy Airport.

Just before the boardwalk and beach at the end of 116th is the Flight 587 Memorial, a place we have come to several times since it was dedicated a couple of years ago. It's a good place to think and to remember, even on a blustery, chilly (but bright) November afternoon.

On November 13, 2001, the lead story in The New York Times by N.R. Kleinfeld began:
An American Airlines jetliner bound from New York to Santo Domingo with 260 people aboard plunged into a neighborhood in Queens minutes after takeoff yesterday morning, jarring a city still numb from the agony it has already endured.

No one on the plane survived, officials said, and six to nine people were reported missing on the ground in Belle Harbor, a serene neighborhood on the Rockaway Peninsula still mourning dozens of residents killed in the World Trade Center attack. Federal officials said that the crash was being investigated as an accident, but they had not ruled out terrorism, sabotage or other criminal acts. Eyewitnesses reported seeing a burning engine separate from the plane and plummet to earth.

White House officials said there were no unusual communications between the pilot and the control tower, nor had intelligence reports picked up any credible threats against airplanes. Nevertheless, across the country, airports shut down, bridges and tunnels were closed and security was increased at government offices and nuclear plants.

Officials with the National Transportation Safety Board, the lead investigative agency, said at a briefing last night that they had recovered and listened to the plane's cockpit voice recorder. In the less than two minutes between the takeoff and the crash, they said, only the pilot and copilot could be heard. "Every indication points to this being an accident," said Marion Blakey, the board's chairwoman. "All evidence we have points to no evidence of criminal activity."

The aircraft -- American Airlines Flight 587, an Airbus A-300 fully loaded with fuel and carrying 251 passengers and 9 crew members -- took off from runway 31L at Kennedy International Airport at 9:14 a.m. for the Dominican Republic. Many of the passengers were Dominican immigrants who lived in the Washington Heights section of Manhattan. Day after day, American Airlines flights shuttle Dominicans to and from their homeland, often for festive family reunions or business dealings. There is even a famous merengue song about the three-and-a-half-hour trip called "Flight 587."

As the plane ascended into a brilliant, blue sky, something caused it to wobble, flip abruptly on its nose and veer straight down, shedding pieces. With an explosive roar and plumes of black smoke, the plane ripped through the roofs of two- and three-story frame houses in Belle Harbor., The crash ignited fires in about a dozen homes, and sent screaming residents scurrying outside. Four houses were destroyed, leaving a huge crater strewn with muddy debris and smoldering luggage. Other homes were badly damaged by fire.

Chunks of metal as big as car doors showered at least a five-block radius of Belle Harbor, bouncing off homes and streets. Part of one of the plane's engines landed in a boat parked in the driveway of a house; much of the other engine fell in the lot of a Texaco station. A vertical tail fin tumbled into Jamaica Bay.

Many people had the day off from work because of Veterans Day, and schools were closed. A high school and elementary school, both empty, narrowly missed being struck by the plunging plane. One of the schools became a triage center, but was abandoned by evening for lack of survivors. The gym of one school became a temporary morgue. By last night, 265 bodies had been found, Deputy Police Commissioner Joseph P. Dunne said.

Two years ago, Mayor Bloomberg and families of victims dedicated this memorial, a wall designed by Dominican artist Freddy Rodríguez and Situ Studio, with open windows and a doorway looking towards the nearby Atlantic Ocean and angled towards the Dominican Republic. It is inscribed with the names of the 265 who died in the second deadliest aviation disaster in the U.S.

We always read at least some of the names and see the quotation from Dominican poet Pedro Mir at the top of the memorial:
Después no quiero no más que paz.
(Afterwards I want nothing more than peace.)

Today we stood there for what seemed a long time, thinking and looking through the little windows at the sea, before we walked on the boardwalk over the two blocks to where we lived when we were nearly 30 years younger, and then, feeling chilled, made the long trip back to our current home.

The Flight 587 Memorial, in our opinion, is one of the most beautiful in New York City.

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