Flight 587 was the second worst aviation disaster in U.S. history, but remains a forgotten tragedy.
On a crystal clear morning on November 12, 2001, a routine flight prepares for take off from JFK International Airport in New York City bound for Santo Domingo in the Dominican Republic.
The American Airlines flight is packed with 260 passengers -- most Dominicans or Dominican-Americans -- and crew. The holidays are near, and there are generations of families on board. Flight 587 is a lifeline between the tight knit towns of the Dominican Republic and the heart of Dominican-American life in Washington Heights and Upper Manhattan.
On this Monday about 50 residents from the Dominican town of Baní are traveling back to take part in local festivities.
The plane was scheduled to take off at 8:40 AM, but just two months after the terrorist attacks of 9/11, airport security was at its highest levels. Every passenger is screened twice in the first signs of a post 9/11 World.
At 9:15 am Flight 587 starts its ascent, but seconds after takeoff the plane begins to shake. The pilots struggle to control the Airbus A300, which has appeared to hit air turbulence that experts believe was created by a Japanese 747 flight that took off just minutes before.
One minute later, while flying over the Rockaways in the borough of Queens, a residential neighborhood popular among families of New York’s firefighters and police officers, the plane begins to break apart.
In a catastrophic turn of events, Flight 587 plunges into the homes below causing a massive explosion and a raging inferno. All 260 people on board were killed, as well as five others on the ground.
I wanted to celebrate the life of the people who perished. It’s beyond dying on a plane. These were people who were hard-working immigrants, and we want to remember them as something positive.
- Artist Freddy Rodriguez
A still shell-shocked nation awoke that sunny day -- in weather eerily similar to Sept. 11, 2001 -- to a disaster many believed was another terrorist attack. While a confused nation scrambled to find the cause, the families of the nearly 300 lost gathered at airports in New York and Santo Domingo hoping against all hope for survivors while coming to grips with the horrific scope of their loss.
The crash has killed entire families.
On this 10th anniversary, Flight 587, the second worst aviation disaster in U.S. history, remains the forgotten tragedy, seemingly a footnote to one of the nation's darkest days. The plane crash and its horrific aftermath came at a time when New York City, and perhaps the nation -- still reeling from the terror and heartache some 20 miles away -- just couldn't endure more mass grief.
But for the families of Flight 587, the crash that wiped out their loved ones in just a few minutes became their foremost catastrophe. The weeks, months and now 10 years that followed would do little to soften the pain in the wake of that fateful morning.
Danilo Corporan, 52, was determined to get on Flight 587. His wife of 12 years Eduarda, and mother to four of his six children, was excited to introduce their six-month-old daughter, Jeanette, to her side of the family in San Cristóbal, Dominican Republic. Danilo insisted he didn’t want his wife and infant daughter to travel alone.
Meanwhile, his sister, Angela Martínez, did everything she could to keep him off that doomed passenger manifest.
“I started crying. I said, 'Don’t go, don’t go, don’t go,'” Martinez remembers.
She had just arrived from her own trip to the D.R., and had a dream that week of images of her family gathering in an airport. The dream shook her to a point that she changed her own flight to New York a few days prior.
For José Lora, 42, Flight 587 was a vehicle for his family’s American Dream. Lora was traveling to and from New York while finishing up his two-year law degree in Santo Domingo. His goal was to be a lawyer in the U.S. Married twice, Lora, was in many ways a father and a mother to his 16-year-old son and 8-year-old daughter.
“We wanted him to stay – he said he had an exam to take,” his sister, Belkis Lora, said. “He just wanted to come back, move forward. That was his dream - to help his family so that we could all live together.”
For Hipólito, 83, and Ubencia, 73, Algarroba Flight 587 was a gateway, like for so many Dominicans, from Santo Domingo to Washington Heights. The couple, married for 53 years, was flying back to the island to retire. It was a trip all too familiar to them. The Algarroba’s had brought their son Héctor, 58, to the U.S. when he was just 10 years-old.
On November 12, Algarroba’s parents arrived early to the airport and were bumped up onto Flight 587 that morning. But before he left the airport, Héctor asked the airline to page for his mother. She came back through security to see him. He gave her two kisses good-bye – one for her, and one he meant for his father.
“Not even death could bring them apart,” Héctor said of his parents to the Queen Tribune.
Realization of a Nightmare
At 10:00 a.m. that morning, Martínez, who had unsuccessfully tried to convince her brother to not board the flight, was preparing to go pick up her nephews, whom she had promised to care for.
While getting ready, she turned on the television. There was breaking news. A plane had crashed. Martinez immedietly called her brother-in-law, who had just driven her brother, Corporan, his wife and infant, to the airport. She sees the fire on the television screen.
“I am nervous. I feel nausea. But the news says that it was a plane coming from Santo Domingo to New York City,” she said.
Then Martínez’s younger brother arrives at her home and together they hear the latest report confirming that the flight actually originated out of New York, not Santo Domingo, as initially reported.
Reality began to set in.
“My younger brother began jumping on the sofa screaming uncontrollably, 'No, no, no. It was the flight that was leaving,'” Martínez recalls. “'It was the flight that was leaving.'”
Martínez gathered herself and arrived at her brother’s home. She didn’t want her nephews to know that there was anything wrong. But it was too late -- the 8-year-old boy and 13-, and 15-year-old sisters turned on the television as she tried to corrale them out of the house.
“The little boy was on the couch, and together they turned on the TV, and they saw the fire,” Martínez cried. “When I saw that, I couldn’t contain myself.”
“¿Qué paso, Qué paso? Is that my mother and father’s flight?” the sisters panicked and fainted in the hallway. The younger boy sat breathing heavily.
“It was their flight. I just didn’t want to accept it,” Martínez said. “I just didn’t want to accept it.”
From that moment on Martínez became mother to three more children. She went on to raise her own two kids as well as her brother’s three kids. All of them have receied a college education or are going to universities. None of them have ever spoken to her about that day.
The 8-year-old boy is now 18 and is training to be a pilot.
The families of the victims would continue to struggle in the time that followed the crash. Difficult questions surfaced about what to do with the remains, what ultimately brought down Flight 587, and how their loved ones would be memorialized.
The force of the crash was so intense that the scene was littered with body parts. Just two months after 9/11, the city medical examiner's office was tasked with identifying the victims from nearly 1,200 pieces of human remains.
Some, like Martínez, were lucky to be given a body to bury.
For others, though, 581 remains of bones, tissues, skin, and hair that went identified now needed to be buried.
For five years the family debated what to do with the remains and where to place them. It was ultimately decided that Woodlawn Cemetery in the Bronx would be the location.
The remains, in four coffins, were placed in a crypt at Woodlawn in 2007.
As for the cause?
“Initially everyone thought it was a terrorist attack, everyone...thought this was the second wave, and somehow was connected with 9/11,” Assemblyman Guillermo Linares, who represents the Washington Heights area and worked hand-in-hand with the families over the last 10 years, said.
The National Transportation Safety Board, the independent federal agency responsible for investigating civil aviation accidents, was under intense media and outside pressures to determine the cause of Flight 587. It issued a final report in 2004.
Investigators determine that the second worst aviation incident in U.S. history was caused by the pilot’s “unnecessary and excessive” use of the rudder. The report also cited that flawed training by the airline and poor rudder design were contributing factors.
“We [the families] still don't believe the NTSB. I don't believe it was the pilot’s fault. I've listened to the cockpit tape over and over again. He was trying to do his best to save that plane,” Lora explained. “No one in that cockpit sounded panicked – to me it’s still a mystery.”
Martinez still hasn't ruled out terrorism.
“There was a bomb on that flight. My heart has always said that and always will. One day the truth will come out,” she said.
There are two memorials honoring the lives of those who died on Flight 587. One built in 2003, in Baní, a town in the Dominican Republic that lost over 50 residents on the flight; the other was built in 2006 in Far Rockaway, about 17 blocks away from the actual crash site.
Families fought for the chance to have the memorial on the actual crash site, a space they believe is sacred land. They eventually lost that fight with the Rockaway residents.
Today, there are private homes built on the crash site. However, a tree and a plaque serve as reminders of that day.
At the memorial, the names of all 265 who perished are inscribed in granite overlooking the Atlantic Ocean. The names, carved on 190 blocks, are arranged alphabetically by surname, with families are grouped together.
The Flight 587 memorial was designed by Dominican American artist and Queens resident Freddy Rodriguez and Situ Studio. His design proposal to the committee won over nearly 80 other submissions.
“This is my life’s work, he said. “I wanted to celebrate the life of the people who perished. It’s beyond dying on a plane. These were people who were hard-working immigrants, and we want to remember them as something positive.”
Every detail has its purpose. For example, the doorway to the memorial faces exactly towards Santo Domingo.
“The door is symbolic. It’s a gateway. It’s what allows you in and out of the country. It’s the immigrant experience,” Rodriguez said.
The holes in the monument allow light to come through so that “we may think of the souls of the people that come in as light,” Rodriguez explained.
Inscribed at the top of the memorial is a line from Dominican national poet Pedro Mir’s poem, “There is a country in the world.” The inscription reads “Después No Quiero Más Que Paz”—“Afterward, I Want Only Peace.”
“This is a Dominican tragedy. This is part of Dominican history. Ten years later we must continue to tell all generations about how the Dominican community suffered,” Lora said. “Time passes, but it never passes in your heart.”
CORRECTION in article made November 13: Danilo Corporan not Coronado.
On Sunday, November 13th be sure to go to Wordup Bookshop in Manhattan, New York City to watch "Flight 587 Honor" a documentary by filmmaker Jaydee from 2pm to 4pm.