The Tragedy of Flight 587

“Oh, my God.”

That was Rudolph Giuliani’s first thought when he was told on Monday morning, Nov. 12, that an airliner had plunged into the Rockaway area of Queens, as he echoed the feelings of shock, fear and grief which immediately swept the city. Almost two months to the day and time of the Sept. 11 terrorist attack on the World Trade Center, New Yorkers were confronted with another tragedy, murky in its origins but devastating in its cost to human life and the city’s sense of well-being. The plumes of black smoke, the scenes of firefighters rushing to the crash site, the knowledge that hundreds of families had their lives shattered in an instant, the airports, bridges and tunnels being shut down, the Empire State Building evacuated, police vans speeding through the streets–it was all too horribly familiar.

It was the first plane crash in a residential area of the city in 25 years, and it came at a time when New Yorkers are hyper-alert to any evidence of terrorism. The morning after the crash of American Airlines Flight 587, federal officials were cautiously suggesting that the cause was mechanical failure and not an act of criminal sabotage. But at press time, there were far more questions than answers, and aviation experts had no ready explanation for what sort of mechanical problem could have caused an Airbus A-300 to have broken apart in the manner of Flight 587.

But whatever the results of the ongoing investigation by the National Transportation Safety Board, the damage has been done. None of the 260 people on board survived. The daily American Airlines flight was a bond between the city’s dynamic Dominican community and its roots in the Dominican Republic. The Washington Heights area, which is home to many Dominicans, had already lost dozens of residents in the World Trade Center attack.

That the plane fell in the Rockaways was a particularly cruel blow: The area is still mourning nearly 100 local residents who perished on Sept. 11, including 75 firefighters. Now, as many as nine more lives have been lost in the tightly knit neighborhood, homes have been destroyed and the streets filled with rubble.

As he has done for the past two months, Mayor Giuliani handled himself with steady calm and reassured city residents that everything possible was being done to protect them. But beyond the damage to the city’s psyche, one must also confront the long-term costs of the crash of Flight 587, when seen in the shadow of Sept. 11. Tourism is already suffering, and the city will have to work mightily to convince travelers from across the country and the world that the skies over New York are safe. Retailers heading into the holiday shopping season are bracing themselves for lower sales, as people may decide to just stay home. The city’s world-famous teaching hospitals must anticipate that patients who previously would have come to New York may choose hospitals in other cities. And the city’s great universities have a tougher sell ahead of them for both students and faculty members.

These are temporary issues, however. The recent tragic events have taught the rest of the world what New Yorkers have always known: that we are a city of courageous and strong-hearted people who help each other in times of need, and who refuse to let terrorists or outside events dampen our passion for the city we have built, and will rebuild as many times as necessary, because we would never settle for anything less.