Flight 587 Memorials: Tears and Remembrances
By Howard Schwach And Gary G. Toms
(Reporting from Astoria and Riis Park)
For many who live in Rockaway it has been a tough year since the dual tragedies of September 11 and November 12, 2001.
Life for many seems to have become a round of mourning, of wakes and funerals, of remembrances and memorials, of rebuilding and renewing.
Last week brought the first anniversary of the crash of Flight 587 in Belle Harbor and that anniversary brought yet another round of memorials, not only to the five Rockaway residents who perished in the crash, but to the 260 who died on the plane as well.
The memorial week actually began on Saturday, November 9, with the planting of a memorial grove of trees in Astoria Park, a grassy slope overlooking the East River.
As trucks passed above the park on the Triborough Bridge, a bell was rung 264 times, once for each of the victims of the crash.
According to Liam Kavanaugh, the New York City Parks Commissioner, the site in Astoria was chosen because it is "roughly half-way between Rockaway and Washington Heights, where the families of many of those who died on the plane live.
Other park officials told The Wave, however, that the site was chosen because it was one of the few city parks designated for a memorial site.
In any case, few Rockaway people attended the memorial, which was packed with media representatives and many of the relatives of those who died when the A300-600 crashed into Beach 131 Street and Newport Avenue.
The park is located at the intersection of Ditmars Boulevard and Shore Road.
The official city memorials for the crash victims were held on Tuesday, November 12, the anniversary of the crash.
The day began at Riis Park with a melancholy mood and a heavy rain. Hundreds of family members and Rockaway residents filled the boardwalk area, huddled under blankets provided by the American Red Cross or umbrellas.
Mayor Michael Bloomberg was the main speaker.
Many of the relatives had tears in their eyes as Bloomberg told them, "It's time to remember those who are gone and comfort those who remain. The tremendous loss that you suffered that day a year ago added new burdens to an already grieving city."
Congressman Anthony Weiner, who attended the memorial along with Senators Charles Schumer and Hillary Clinton, Assemblywoman Audrey Pheffer and other elected officials, did not speak, but he issued a statement to The Wave.
"Belle Harbor is a community that looks up to the heavens every day, sometimes in the praise of God Almighty, but sometimes to look at the planes flying low overhead. After the events of November 12, I do not think that anybody in our community will ever look at planes quite the same way again."
"As horrible as the incident was, it was yet another reminder of our common humanity in New York City and across the nation," Weiner added. "Washington Heights, where many of the relatives of those flying on Flight 587 lived, is about as far away from Belle Harbor as you can get. Today, however, just as we were on November 12, we are reminded of what is great about New York City and what is great about our country."
Faith Peithman, a young Belle Harbor resident, read a poem that she had written.
"Think of how they must be wishing that we could know today/ How nothing of our sadness can really pass away," a portion of her poem read.
Monsignor Martin Gerghty did the opening benediction and the program's closing, speaking in both English and Spanish.
Gary G. Toms
(Reporting from Belle Harbor)
Once the ceremony concluded at Jacob Riis Park, many of the relatives boarded buses that took them to Beach 131 Street and Newport Avenue, which was the site of the crash. The reporters, who came from all over the world to cover the event, braved the cold and rain for a chance to interview grieving family members. As the buses pulled into the area, cameramen focused on mourners carrying photos of the dead and mothers that were comforting their sobbing children.
"This is incredible. There are so many people coming to remember their loved ones," said a 1010 WINS reporter during a live radio broadcast.
"There is a stillness, a silence that is indescribable. The looks on the faces of the family members is heart wrenching."
The reporter wiped her eyes.
"Back to you guys in the studio."
ABC (Channel 7) reporter N.J. Burkett watched the events unfold, and it was evident that the level of emotion that engulfed the area shook even this esteemed news veteran. After several minutes, Burkett did live interviews with Broad Channel Volunteer firefighters and a retired New York City firefighter, all of whom took part in rescue efforts shortly after the crash.
A Wave reporter made his way to the area where the buses were parking.
"This is so sad. These people deserve answers, and the fact that they are not being provided is a disgrace," said one of the bus drivers, as family members exited the bus.
Several elected officials, Congressman Anthony Weiner, Assemblywoman Pheffer and Senator Hillary Rodham-Clinton, made their way through the crowd of mourners. They shook hands and offered words of comfort. Clinton recognized a Wave reporter from an interview conducted earlier in the year, and she took a moment to share her thoughts on the Flight 587 tragedy.
"This is a sad day for the relatives and for Rockaway. This community has suffered so much within the last year and a half, and my prayers go out to all those affected by these horrible events."
A heavy rain began to fall, and it produced a sea of umbrellas, while the pain felt by families of the victims produced a sea of tears. Some chose to cry in solitude, while others cried in groups. The level of sorrow was overwhelming, and even a few reporters were forced to put the story aside, if only for a few moments, to shed a tear or two.
At 9:16, there was a moment of silence for those killed in the crash and on the ground. Children and adults could be heard weeping during the silence. Nature decided to have mercy on the mourners at this point, as a steady rain was now reduced to a light mist. Several people began to sing "God Bless America," and at the conclusion of the song, an unidentified man stated, "God bless America, and God bless the Dominican Republic," as each country's flag swayed against a gentle breeze.
At the end of the ceremony, a dozen doves were released into the air. A young woman was clutching a photo of her mother. A young man that accompanied her placed his hands around her shoulders. They embraced, and walked over to the memorial wall to place the rose. Soon, other mourners surrounded them, and they all began a silent prayer for their loved ones and for the members of the Rockaway community.