2001-11-24 / Columnists

Beachcomber

The recent aircraft crash in Belle Harbor was not the first such accident in Rockaway. On May23, 1946, a two-seat Navy trainer, a SNJ-5, went down on top of the Kentucky Derby concession at Beach 99 Street. The two Navy personnel, most likely an instructor pilot and a trainee, died in the crash. The story in The Wave at the time, said, "A number of residents who saw the plane before it crashed, gave different stories, and a few agree that the underpart of its fuselage was aflame as it was seen heading about north and coming from the ocean." Sound familiar? The plane was probably heading to Floyd Bennett Field on a training flight and the findings of a Navy investigation were never made public.

One of the first to fight the fires that came from the jet aircraft that corkscrewed into Belle Harbor last week was Jim Bullock, the owner of Bullock’s Texaco on Beach 129 Street. One of the plane’s engines slammed into his gas station, barely missing both the gasoline pumps and an oil truck that was parked in the station. Bullock and his employees ran out with hoses and fire extinguisher to fight the fire in the burning engine. Bernie Heeren, the owner of Harbor Light, who lives right across the street from the station, reportedly joined them. They had the fire extinguished before fire units reached the scene, averting what might have been a major disaster on the street had the gas pumps gone up.

According to Bellot’s History of the Rockaways, in 1915, the "prominent" residents of the "area occupied by the former incorporated villages of Far Rockaway, Arverne and Rockaway Beach, which now form the Fifth Ward of the Borough of Queens," got angry at the city. They demanded an up-to-date sewer system, an oceanfront boardwalk "from Far Rockaway to Neponsit," a better highway or boulevard to run throughout the community and a better road connecting Rockaway to Brooklyn, across Jamaica Bay. In that year, a bill was presented and passed in the legislature to make the Fifth Ward into a separate city, to be called "Rockaway City." The mayor at the time, John Purroy Mitchel, vetoed the bill. The bill did not pass the legislature in 1916. In 1917, however, it was passed again. Mitchel again vetoed it. The book, which was written in 1917, says that the Rockaway residents hoped to present the same bill in 1918 to the new mayor, John Hylan. According to John Baxter, the bill was again passed and approved by the new mayor. There is some conjecture in the book, however, that the move was just a ploy to get better services from the city, not an genuine attempt to secede, as Baxter says it was.

The Wave offices were inundated on Saturday morning by storeowners who wanted more copies of the November 17 edition. It seems that the paper had quickly become a collector’s item. Many residents were buying two – one to read and one to put away for their grandchildren. That edition, by the way, was only the second time that The Wave used full color on its front page. The first time was about two years ago, when it was tried as an experiment.

Patricia Kaiser called The Wave from LaGrange Park, Illinois. She had seen a Rockaway resident who told a television news show that he had a feeling that people around the nation were detaching from New York and the World Trade Center disaster. She called to say that people around the nation are not detached from Rockaway’s problems, that they may be far away, but their television still shows scenes from the WTC attack each day. "There are thousands of us who are still with you," Kaiser said. "We are still thinking of you all of the time."

One of the many books about the World Trade Center disaster beginning to clog the bookshelves is called "In the Line Of Duty." We picked up a copy at Staples in Howard Beach, but we assume they are widely available. All of the publisher’s profits will go to the widow’s and children’s fund. In any case, there is a list of all of the firefighters who were lost in the terrorist attack and it is a little chilling. The list, in alphabetical order, begins with Joseph Agnello and ends with Raymond York. Both of them were Rockaway residents. I guess that we can say that the list of the dead and missing begins and ends with Rockaway and that is certainly the way it feels.

KeySpan workers Rodney Keenan and Paul Rezler were working on a gas main replacement project nearby when the plane hit Beach 131 Street. They went to the scene, where a neighbor ran up to them to tell them that Sam and Shirley Konsker were trapped in their home by the flames. The two men, aided by the neighbor retrieved a ladder from a nearby home and helped the trapped couple to safety. "I am not sure why we picked that street to work on," one of the workers told reporters. "It must have been fate."

The Dominican mourners who came to Rockaway for a prayer service at Riis Park last Sunday were well received by local residents when they toured the crash scene. Young residents tied white ribbons to many of the trees in the area, symbolizing healing and unity. Some provided water and juice to those who traveled from as far away as the Dominican Republic and as near as Brooklyn and the Bronx.

Most of those who saw Flight 587 in its death throes say that its tail was gone and its engines were on fire as it passed over the Beach 116 Street area on its way to the streets of Belle Harbor, there are some who say that they saw the plane explode violently prior to its crash. That information contradicts everything that has been said about the crash, but a number of people have made that report and that cannot be discounted easily.

A number of residents have called to remind The Wave that the Belle Harbor is not "predominately Irish and Italian," as the national media has been reporting. In fact, census data shows that about half of the residents of Belle Harbor (and, that depends on how you define the boundaries of Belle Harbor) are Jewish by religion or descent. Not that it matters much, but we just wanted to set the record straight. Now that we said that, it is important to understand that for many people, St. Francis de Sales Church is the communities "center." Because the church is so close to the accident scene, it was also the focus of many of the articles generated by the national media. Thus, the perception that the area is predominately Irish and Italian.

The meeting called for PS 114 on Monday night was supposed to address the questions and the needs of the Rockaway families of those who died in the crash as well as those who lost their homes and property. Instead, it turned into a Lew Simon-driven argument over flight paths and Doppler radar. While it is clear that there is a need to redefine the flight paths out of JFK, this meeting was neither the time nor the place to address that question. Those who were devastated by the accident were not well served by those who monopolized the meeting with question after question and demand after demand that could not be satisfied that night.


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