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Nearly two months to the day after a pair of hijacked airplanes rammed and destroyed the Twin Towers of New York's World Trade Center, disaster struck the Big Apple again yesterday as a jetliner en route to the Dominican Republic crashed in a waterfront neighborhood.
At least 265 people were killed as the plane broke apart and crashed to earth in the Rockaway Beach section of Queens. Still, police said, it could have been much worse.
One of the smoking engines from American Airlines Flight 587, a European-made Airbus A300, was found intact in a parking lot at a Texaco station, where it had missed the gas pumps and fuel tanks by no more than six feet. If the flaming engine was any closer, police said, it could have ignited the approximately 80,000 gallons of fuel in the tanks.
Queens resident Carmine Castellano said he was heading into the Texaco station in his truck when the engine landed in front of him. "If I was two seconds faster I would have been right under the engine," he said. "If the engine would have landed a few feet to the left it would have hit the pumps and made this disaster much worse."
As residents scrambled for cover, a handful of neighbors realized the danger the smoking engine posed as it smoldered just a few feet from the fuel tanks. They ran to the station and desperately tried to put out the fire with the only thing they had -- garden hoses. New York City firefighters arrived minutes later to contain the fire and avert a second major disaster.
News of the downed airplane spread quickly throughout a city still reeling from the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. Within minutes of the crash, state Gov. George Pataki and New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani closed all entrances to and from the city and shut down the major airports serving the area. President George W. Bush responded by dispatching fighter planes to patrol New York City's airspace as the incident was investigated. The city's bridges and tunnels reopened as did Newark, LaGuardia and Kennedy airports a few hours later.
By nightfall, investigators said the accident appeared to be caused by "mechanical failure" not new terrorist activity, though the FBI has refused to rule out any possibility.