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Tuesday, 4 December, 2001, 12:28 GMT
Rockaway relives brushes with death
Fires from the American Airlines crash in the Rockaway neighbourhood of New York as seen from police helicopter
Many residents are lucky to be alive
Megan Lane

When Flight 587 spiralled to earth just minutes after taking off from John F Kennedy Airport, it killed at least five people on the ground in addition to the 260 passengers and crew aboard.

Four houses were destroyed on the narrow Rockaway peninsula where the American Airlines airbus crashed, and several others damaged in the resulting inferno.

But the toll could have been far worse had the plane skidded to a halt, taking out entire blocks of the normally quiet community of Belle Harbor, rather than drop nose-first.

Now the initial shock of the disaster has worn off, many Rockaway inhabitants are reflecting on just how close they came to death themselves.

The lucky ones

Among the lucky ones are the McKeon family. The hulking wreckage of one of the engines shattered their garage - plus their boat parked in the driveway - and set the rear of their house ablaze.

The McKeon family's boat in their house in Rockaway, New York
The McKeon family's boat was hit by an engine
Kevin McKeon had been drinking coffee in the kitchen with his wife, Ilene, and their three children at the time. He and his four-year-old daughter, Shannon, were flung into the rubble in the back yard while Mrs McKeon landed in the living room.

All escaped with minor bruises - but the heat was so intense that it scorched the money in Mr McKeon's pocket.

"We were just 20 feet from death," he says. "Even 10 feet would have been good enough for me."

One block over, the second engine lies largely intact in the forecourt of a Texaco garage.

It missed the fuel tanks by no more than five feet. The damage done is no more serious than a few broken windows.

Guardian angel

Locals have their own theories about this near miss.

I looked out the window and all I saw was the colour of pumpkin, this dark orange

Mark Shorr
Across the street from the garage lives the parents of Charles Heeran, 23, a Cantor Fitzgerald trader who died in the World Trade Center attacks.

Their restaurant is within yards of where the plane itself came down.

"We thought maybe Charlie pushed it a little further along as it fell," says family friend Pat Corby.

Her own daughter had been at the shops across the street from the garage at the time. She escaped shaken, but unhurt.

Emergency workers examine wreckage from the crash
More would have died if the plane had skidded
Mark Shorr, whose house was severely damaged, had gone to rouse his 15-year-old son, Jason, when he heard a loud roar that he first mistook for the Concorde's sonic boom.

"The whole house started to shake like a subway car," he says. "I looked out the window and all I saw was the colour of pumpkin, this dark orange."

As the fire took hold of the back of the house, he and his son fled out of the front door.

His elderly neighbours, Thomas and Helen Concannon, were not so lucky. They were among the five Rockaway residents killed in the crash.

When the blast shook Gerry Pomponio's home in Beach 131st St, she thought her hairdryer had short-circuited and caused an explosion.

Then she realised that a plane had hit the front of her house, smashing through the upstairs bedroom where her husband Frank lay sleeping.

Unable to make it through the wreckage to her husband, Gerry grabbed her teenage daughter, Jennifer, and ran out of the back door.

Finding their way blocked by flames and smoking debris, Gerry managed to break a hole in the fence and the pair escaped.

Anything but normal

On Wednesday, barely 48 hours after the devastating crash, the community as a whole is struggling to resume life as normal.

Yet emergency vehicles and news vans still line the streets around the crash site, and one local school remains closed as it is now a command centre for rescue workers.

Tearful friends and neighbours continue to congregate on street corners near the site, holding each other close for comfort.

Gerry and Jennifer, meanwhile, are trying to get used to the idea that their beloved husband and father will never wake up.

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12 Nov 01 | World
13 Nov 01 | Americas
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