2002-05-18 / Columnists

From the Editor’s Desk

By Howard Schwach

By Howard Schwach

It was billed as a memorial service for those killed in the crash of American Airlines Flight 587 in Belle Harbor, a time for the families of the 260 people on the plane and the five on the ground who died, to get together to mourn their loved ones six months later.

What it turned into, however, was a media circus that addressed the specific agendas of a couple of activists rather than the need to grieve of the families.

You had to be there to understand what that did to the fifty or so people who had come, mostly from Washington Heights, to say goodbye to their family members one more time.

Hector Algarroba, who lost both of his parents on flight 587, was the person who set up the memorial. He worked closely with Liz Sulik of the Rockaway Chamber of Commerce and Barbara Larkin, the president of the Belle Harbor Property Owners Association.

He was not a happy man. When he arrived at the Beach 131 Street crash site about 8:45 a.m. there were reporters and camerapersons all over the site. A few local residents stood around, waiting for something to happen. Two dozen or so relatives placed flowers at a makeshift memorial wall on Newport Avenue. The media representatives circled them like hungry sharks, looking for somebody to interview.

Many of the relatives were reluctant to be interviewed. Most did not speak English well enough to face cameras or reporters. Some of them relented and spoke with a Hispanic station.

There were a couple of people who were more than willing to speak. They wanted to tell the world not about their relatives or about their grieving. They wanted the media to listen to what they had to say, to feed into their specific agenda.

Brett Landsmann lost his mother and father in the crash, as well as an aunt and an uncle. Landsmann is a Jericho attorney. He gathered the media around him and loudly declared that the victims of flight 587 should be included in the pot of money designated for the victims of the World Trade Center attack. While he stopped short of saying that the crash was a result of a terrorist attack, he made the point that the two dates were too close together for it to be a coincidence.

Others who were there to mourn moved quietly around him and the media that was listening intently to his diatribe and placed flowers at a makeshift memorial wall fronting on Newport Avenue.

Others were even more outspoken and made their points more loudly than Landsmann.

Francisco Mateo is connected with the Taxi and Limousine Commission. It was not clear whether he worked for the commission or for a union that deals with the commission, but that did not matter in this context.

Mateo loudly told reporters from UPI and WCBS radio that American Airlines was discriminating against Hispanics by flying a dangerous aircraft such as the A300-600 only on routes that covered South and Latin America. He came close to accusing the airlines, the FAA and the NTSB of blatant racism.

The media began to flock to him like flies to you-know-what.

He was loud and he was arrogant. He attracted lots of attention, particularly from the media.

Algarrobba looked on in disgust.

"This is not what this memorial service is supposed to be about," he muttered to himself, but loud enough for bystanders to hear. "This is supposed to be for the relatives to heal."

A busload of family members that had been lost in another part of the peninsula finally arrived about 10:30 and the service began.

Monsignor Martin Geraghty, the pastor of St. Francis de Sales Church, was on hand to say the prayers, and he did a wonderful job, both in English and in Spanish.

"We are united in faith, we are united in sadness," Geraghty said. "This is consecrated ground because of the people we have lost here. We are here because we will never forget them."

One Hispanic man behind me began to speak loudly. I am not an expert Spanish-speaker, but, after 30 years in the school system, I understood enough to get the gist of his tirade. He was angry because an "Anglo" priest had been officiating rather than a Hispanic priest.

Algarobba thanked everybody for coming and specifically thanked Liz Sulik and the Belle Harbor community for welcoming the ceremony and for welcoming the people from Washington Heights.

It was clear that he was both saddened and angered by the attempt to turn the memorial service into a political forum.

"There were lots of tears, lots of pain here today," he said. "That is why we were here. It was important for us to come here, to the place where our loved ones died."

Some local residents are not so sure, however.

Gerrie Pompanio, whose house was destroyed and whose husband was killed when the plane came down on Beach 131 Street and Newport Avenue, did a long interview with the New York Post recently.

In that article, Pompanio, who plans to rebuild on the site, and who was at the memorial on Sunday, said that she hopes that the area does not become a memorial site year after year.

"I know people need to have closure, so I can understand holding the service," she reportedly told Post reporter John Lehmann. "But this is a residential community – it’s not a graveyard."

I have personally heard similar comments from others who live close to the site.

I am not sure that those who attended the memorial from Washington Heights would agree.

In fact, that is where their relatives – their mothers and fathers, brothers and sisters, grandfathers and grandmothers dies on November 12.

To those people Polpanio’s residential neighborhood is a consecrated ground.

Perhaps some sort of suitable memorial should be built nearby the site, perhaps on Newport Avenue between Beach 130 and Beach 131 Street could be erected. That could become the focus of any other memorials and would satisfy the needs of the Washington Heights community and the Rockaway community as well.

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