NEW YORK – Still dressed in pajamas and bleary from sleep, Rockaway residents wandered into the street Monday morning to discover hell at their doorsteps after American Airlines Flight 587 crashed into their Queens neighborhood.
Songwriter Matthew Giannasca, 40, was looking out the window of his house when he saw one of the Airbus A300's engines plummet from the sky.
"It was surreal to see something falling out of the sky," Giannasca said. "I didn't even see the plane. I heard a roar and saw this big fireball and heard an explosion. My first thought: They did it again."
Not far away, 27-year-old Paul Maracina, a pilot with US Airways Express, heard what he thought was a Concorde flight that "didn't sound right."
He went outside into the street, looked up and saw the jet coming in low. A piece of the plane separated and landed about a block away, but the main body dove into a row of houses about a block away at what Maracina estimated to be about 150 mph.
"Several houses erupted into flames. Houses were engulfed in flames," he said. "The streets were flooded with people."
As with his neighbor, one thought flashed though Maracina's mind.
"I thought, 'My God, it's another attack,'" he said. "This community was hard-hit. For this to happen again — it's too devastating. It's too soon."
Rockaway lost 90 people in the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, many of them firefighters.
At least six people on the ground were reported missing in the crash, which killed all 260 people onboard. Authorities believe the plane went down because of a mechanical failure and not because of another terrorist attack — but the cause was still under investigation Monday night.
The plane crashed through the back of a Victorian home and slammed into a boat in the backyard, setting it on fire. Witnesses said several people were in the house at the time, but all escaped unscathed.
As police and fire crews raced to the scene, smoke rose from the residential neighborhood that lies below the takeoff route from John F. Kennedy International Airport. The smell of jet fuel permeated the air. Patrol helicopters circled and buzzed overhead.
Local residents, many firefighters themselves, rushed to the crash site wearing badges and pajamas and using garden hoses to try to quell the flames.
A fragment of the jet's metal siding flew off the plane on impact, bounced off a rooftop on Beach 126th Street and came to rest in a hedge in a woman's backyard.
One of the aircraft's engines landed in a nearby Texaco station, sparking a raging fire. A piece of the engine broke off and flew into the truck of Ed Devito, 37, who had just delivered nonflammable motor oil to the gas station and was inside filling out forms.
"The whole place shook," he said. "Glass was flying all over the place. I ducked behind the counter and when I got up, the place was filled with smoke. I saw the fire on the outside. It sounded like a bomb hit."
The portion of engine that struck the back of Devito's truck was about the size of a small car, he said, leaving metal fragments embedded in his vehicle.
"I feel great because I didn't get squished," he said. "Not a scratch. It's amazing."
Had the engine fallen only a few feet away, Devito and others might not have been so lucky, said Police Officer Brian Matthews of the Queens Task Force.
"If it had hit one of the gasoline pumps, this whole block would have been in flames," he said.
Heinz Popp, 71, heard a thump and went to his porch, where he saw an intense fireball down the street and six of his neighbors' houses on fire. No one could get within 150 feet of the wreckage because of the heat, he said. But that didn't stop people from lending a hand in the rescue effort.
"It's amazing how many of the local men jumped in and tried to help lay out the hoses for the firefighters," he said.
A little later, emergency crews came in and started asking for sheets and blankets to cover the bodies, he said.
Two local schools — empty of students for the Veterans Day holiday — were turned into triage centers to prepare for the injured.
Police blocked off the street at Beach 126th Street, where crowds of reporters milled around trying to scoop up every scrap of information. National Guardsmen and FBI agents swarmed around the area, along with EMT crews, firefighters and police.
The community many firefighters call home — which has already held numerous funerals since Sept. 11 — was still struggling to come to grips with the attacks when tragedy struck again, residents said. One fireman and one Cantor-Fitzgerald employee who had lived on the very block where the plane crashed died in the World Trade Center disaster.
"We were there trying to help mourning people regain a sense of normalcy, and now this has happened," schoolteacher Marie McGoldrick, 29, said. "This community is praying this was an accident."
McGoldrick's mother, Cecilia Syvertsen, got a ride to the neighborhood from a police officer and rushed to find her daughter. Their happy reunion quickly turned into a shared sense of dread as they awaited news of the friends and neighbors who lived in the houses that were destroyed by flames.
"It would be a miracle if no one is dead in those houses," Syvertsen, 58, said.
Six people were reported missing on the ground, Mayor Rudolph Giuliani said at a 3:30 press conference, but Deputy Police Commissioner Joseph Dunne later said six to nine people in the neighborhood were missing.
The American Airlines jetliner was on its way to the Dominican Republic with 260 people aboard when it crashed moments after takeoff. Bush administration officials said the FBI believed there was an explosion aboard the plane, and was investigating whether it was the result of a mechanical failure or sabotage.
"We have several conflicting reports of what happened," Giuliani said earlier, before he boarded a helicopter to view the scene. "Obviously, it did a lot of damage. We don't know the full extent of it."
There was little good news from the scene, but when 40-year-old salesman Mike Deutsch rushed home from work and found his house and parents safe, he was relieved.
"I thought my house was gone," he said. "My house is all smoky, but it's fine."
The Associated Press contributed to this report.