Wall honors crash anniversary

NEW YORK – Bells tolled in a beachfront neighborhood yesterday as families clutching red roses and photographs gathered to read the names of loved ones killed five years ago in the crash of American Airlines Flight 587.

Mayor Michael Bloomberg gathered with relatives of the 260 people killed aboard the airliner and the five killed on the ground, in the nation’s second deadliest air accident, to dedicate a memorial wall bearing the victims’ names.

“It is a place to which we can always return to read the names of those we lost five years ago, to share our sorrow and our memories, and to contemplate the eternal beauty and grandeur of the skies and the seas,” Bloomberg said yesterday.

A firefighter and a police officer rang bells at 9:16 a.m., the time the plane crashed just minutes after it took off from Kennedy Airport for a flight to the Dominican Republic.

Some family members then placed flowers by the wall, tearfully reading messages to loved ones in English and Spanish.

The memorial “is nice, but it’s not going to get back to what we really want, which is to be with them and to talk with them,” said Gladys Matos, whose aunt, Iris Santana De Acosta, was a passenger on Flight 587.

The curved memorial wall also bears a quote, in English and Spanish, from the writings of Dominican poet Pedro Mir: “Despues no quiero mas que paz/Afterward I want only peace.”

“Now we can touch their names; we can see their names there,” said Belkis Lora, president of the Committee in Memory of Flight 587, who lost her brother in the crash. “To me, it’s like we’re going to be on board the aircraft in that memorial. Once we go to the memorial we’re going to be there with our loved ones.”

Ana Lora placed a model car by the name of her brother, Jose Francisco Lora, who collected cars. The 43-year-old had been flying home to the Dominican Republic after attending the first birthday party of Ana Lora’s son.

“I feel good being here, but it’s very painful,” Ana Lora said.

The crash on Nov. 12, 2001, in the quiet neighborhood of Belle Harbor further rattled a city still shaken by the attacks on the World Trade Center just two months earlier. Many of the victims lived in Washington Heights, a heavily Dominican neighborhood in Manhattan.

The National Transportation Safety Board determined that a crucial part of the tail fell off the Airbus A300, and the agency blamed pilot error, inadequate pilot training and overly sensitive rudder controls.

The road to building a Flight 587 memorial had its stumbling blocks. Many families wanted something at the crash site, but many neighborhood residents said a memorial wouldn’t fit in.

“We would like to see something where the plane came down, but it’s too late now,” said William Fernandez, whose cousin, Luis Arturo Pichardo, died in the crash. “They built a house there.”

Others in the area, which was home to many firefighters who died on Sept. 11, said they didn’t want a constant reminder of the tragedy. Some proponents of a memorial in the heavily Irish and Jewish neighborhood accused critics of racism against Dominicans.

In the end, the structure was set up about 15 blocks away in a less residential area near the Atlantic Ocean. The $9.2 million memorial was designed by Dominican Republic native Freddy Rodriguez and is being funded with private and public money.