Mar 18, 2009

The Ghosts of Jamaica Bay

When American Airlines Flight 587 crashed into Belle Harbor on November 12, 2001, I drove back home to my parent’s house and made it there by sundown that evening.

I was a sophomore in college, and that morning as I was getting ready for class, the apartment phone rang and my freshman roommate, a volunteer fireman at the time, said he didn’t want to scare me but I should turn on the television. Barely two months after September 11th, such a call was nothing to take lightly. On the TV screen, I saw a wide shot, presumably taken from Manhattan, which showed smoke billowing from land just beyond a stretch of marshes. Even though the news kept saying it was “Queens,” I knew the marsh was Jamaica Bay, and the land was Rockaway.

I called my Dad, who was working in Manhattan, and he had already phoned home. He said no one really knows what the hell is going on out there, but they were worried about the Bulloch’s gas station being on fire. I was shocked it could be that close to home. Bulloch’s was on 129th, and we lived on 138th. Dad said Mom and my brother were fine, but that they heard and felt the boom when the plane hit, and looked out the window to see plumes of smoke rising from a few blocks down.

I didn’t go back until the Friday after September 11th, but this was too much. I drove home that night, despite classes that day and next, and had never felt such a pull to get back there.

It was the feeling of knowing that something major was going on, but being unable to share it with anyone. It was like having news to tell, but no one to tell it to. I don’t know if it was my first trip back to New York after that initial post-September 11th trip, but it struck me as kind of funny how this event had taken place that very morning, been on news screens around the world all day, and now here I was, in the dark, paying the toll, driving my parents’ minivan over the Marine Parkway Bridge, parking in front of our house and standing seven blocks from the crash.

The smell of jet fuel was the first thing you noticed. It was like being at the airport, but stronger. Down the Avenue, emergency vehicles still flashed, but they were outshined by the bright white mobile flood lights that seemed to emanate as far down as you could see. There was no seeing past 131st, where all the lights came from. There, a pile of airplane parts and debris from three destroyed homes rose high into the street. Telephone poles and trees were charred, and workers in yellow haz-mat suits were scouring the pile, a job that would last for days.

Our main street of stores was closed because a jet engine had landed in the gas station, miraculously making a clean landing on a narrow strip of cement between the pumps and the building. In the schoolyard of St. Francis de Sales school, yellow plastic sheets covered the chain-link fence, rumors of a makeshift morgue.

In Jamaica Bay, NTSB officials had used a crane to lift the tail wing of the Airbus out of the shallow waters near 106th Street.

I wondered who may have seen what happened here. And the only thing I could think of: fishermen.

They line the bay wall at all hours, and man their spots well into the fall and even winter. They’re unnamed, anonymous hoodie-wearing men. They typically aren’t from the neighborhood, and they speak different languages.

What tales did they have to tell, these silent, patient guys?

Fishermen in a boat earlier that day said that they witnessed the crash and had helped police boats recover debris from the water. To this day, many people are uncertain exactly what took place where over the Bay that day, and statements from fishermen who witnessed the crash that day has provided some of the strongest fodder for those that have argued against the NTSB's explanation that the plane's tail fell off following extreme forces exuded by its rudder.

Rockaway was hardly developed a hundred years ago, but I wondered what else passersby might have witnessed from the shores of that bay?

For years Jamaica Bay was more known for the history of aviation than for anything else. Over the same stretch of water where we cast our rods, Howard Hughes took off from nearby Floyd Bennett Field, Charles Lindbergh took off, Wiley Post took off, and Douglas “Wrong Way” Corrigan famously “accidentally” flew over the Atlantic in a record-breaking flight, instead of zipping to California. The nation, in the midst of the Depression at the time, needed a hero, and Corrigan was given a ticker-tape parade through Manhattan.

A wide, cement, often moss-covered, launching ramp still to this day leads from the eastern tip of the field into the water, and it was from that very ramp that three wooden seaplanes - I'm talking Wright-brothers style, but with pontoons - entered the bay on the morning of May 8, 1919 and sped over the water before taking off and vanishing out of sight.

The goal was to cross the Atlantic by plane for the first time. Navy destroyers were positioned along the way to act as guides, but two of the planes that formerly sat atop the Bay’s blue-gray water that May day wouldn’t make it to England. One would go off-track and mistake an ocean liner for one of the destroyers, landing nearby and floundering for a few days before being rescued. Another would take on serious damage on a rough landing and be forced to motor for several days on the ocean’s surface before reaching an island on the coast of the Azores. Only one would successfully make it, taking several stops along the way to gain bearings, but successfully crossing the Atlantic and landing in Plymouth Harbor, off of England.

24 days to cross that ocean in the days of primitive radio transmission, all beginning in Jamaica Bay.

Reeling as we were from the events of that fall – as crazy and surreal as it all seemed – the crash in 2001 wasn’t the first time a plane had plummeted down into the Bay.

In fact, on March 1, 1962, on the very day that the New York was honoring astronaut John Glenn following his successful Mercury 6 mission with a tickertape parade in Manhattan, American Airlines Flight 1 took off from Idlewild Airport (now JFK) with a broken rudder and plunged nose-first into Jamaica Bay, in Pumpkin Patch Channel, a shallow area to the west of Cross Bay Boulevard, before the bridge into Howard Beach, Queens.

From reports issued following the crash, it seems that rudder failure caused the plane to dip into a 90-degree right turn and then slip sideways through the air, hitting the bay almost head-on. The plane exploded on impact, flocks of birds scattered from an otherwise tranquil bird sanctuary nearby, and all 95 people on board were killed, including several high-profile individuals. Louise Eastman, heir to the Lindner Department store fortune and mother of Linda Eastman (who would go on to marry Beatle Paul McCartney) was among them.

In 1962, it was the worst commercial aviation disaster in history. In 2001, the crash nearly took that same inauspicious title. It was the second worst.

Floyd Bennett Field was a mystery to us for most of our lives, and it still is today. All Rockaway residents traveling over the Marine Park Bridge pass by the Field, which runs for about a good mile or more beside Flatbush Avenue right after the bridge. In recent years, it’s more opened to the public than it has ever been since it served as New York’s first and only municipal airport, from 1931-1939. Scores of record-setting flights took place, but many more were failures. LaGuardia Airport began the demise of Floyd Bennett Field, but FBF was used as a Naval Air Base throughout World War II, slowly falling into disuse until being handed over the National Parks Service in 1972. Since then, many argue that it’s fallen into total disrepair.

In 1993, Floyd Bennett field was home to us public school students for about a week while the NYC public school asbestos fiasco extended summer break. We played inside the giant hangars, one giant gym class that lasted five days so our parents wouldn’t have to worry about childcare.

For better or worse, Aviator Sports Complex opened in 2006, after four of the eight hangars were renovated and combined. But there’s still an air of mystery that surrounds the place.

Last summer, I made it into the control tower of the administrative building, led up by a park ranger who brought us past locked glass-paneled doors and dusty rooms with broken floorboards. The office that housed the commanding officer still bears a legible stencil upon its glass pane.

Up in the tower, it was hot as blazes. But for the first time, the scope of the place was clear. Three runways criss-crossing one another in the shape of a giant star. Woods out to the left, beyond the main runway, and out of visibility, to the right, obscured by more trees and the massive hangars - Jamaica Bay.

1 comment:

Aaron Kase said...

Nice piece. The fisherman always know . . . would be interesting to read some of their accounts.