NEW YORK — For a few anguished hours on Nov. 12, 2001, Americans still in shock over the 9/11 attacks watched television footage of the blazing wreckage of a jetliner that had just crashed in a Queens neighborhood, and wondered: Is it happening again?
It wasn’t. By late afternoon, authorities were saying the crash of American Airlines Flight 587 looked like an accident, not terrorism. The country breathed a sigh of relief. The horror and grief lingered longer for the loved ones of the 265 dead. Even after 12 years, sadness lives on for people like William Valentine, whose partner and lover of 20 years, flight attendant Joe Lopes, died on the flight.
“I don’t think an hour goes by,” he said, suppressing a sob, “when I’m not thinking of Joe in some way.”
Hundreds of people will gather Tuesday at a seaside memorial on New York’s Rockaway peninsula to mark the 12th anniversary of the crash, which killed everyone aboard the aircraft and five people on the ground.
Mayor Michael Bloomberg is expected to speak at the memorial service, his last time after three terms in office.
The accident will remain forever linked to 9/11 because of its proximity in both time and distance to the disaster at the World Trade Center. Belle Harbor, the suburban beach neighborhood where the plane went down, has been a longtime enclave of police officers, firefighters and financial district workers, and was still holding funerals for its 9/11 dead when the accident happened.
The hardest blow, though, came for New York City’s large community of immigrants from the Dominican Republic. Flight 587 was bound for Santo Domingo when it went down. Most of the passengers were Dominican. In some city neighborhoods, like Manhattan’s Washington Heights, it seemed like everyone knew someone aboard the flight.
Investigators ultimately determined that the plane’s tail had detached in midair because of stress put on the plane’s rudder as the co-pilot tried to steady the aircraft in another jet’s turbulent wake. Since then, steering systems for some airliners have been redesigned so pilots can have greater awareness of movements in the tail rudder.