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Clues point to accident in deadly N.Y. jet crash

When 5-year-old Christopher Hila Jr. heard the loud bang, he looked out the window and saw something falling from the sky. He said it looked like "a plane with no wings."

Chunks of the wings and tail from American Airlines Flight 587 rained into Jamaica Bay as the silver plane roared toward Christopher's neighborhood in the Rockaway section of Queens. A large portion of an engine landed at a Texaco station.

The Airbus A300 crashed a few blocks away and exploded in a fireball. All 260 people on board are believed to have died and six to nine people on the ground were reported missing after parts of the plane crashed into houses, destroying six. Furious orange flames towered above the treetops, and a plume of thick, black smoke could be seen miles away.

The crash _ which occurred just 12 miles from the crumbled remains of the World Trade Center _ ignited new fears about terrorism. New York airports were shut down and the Empire State Building was evacuated. But officials said they found no evidence of sabotage.

"Everything we know to date says this continues to be an accident investigation," NTSB chairwoman Marion Blakey said. "At this stage we believe all indications are that it is an accident."

The plane was en route from John F. Kennedy International Airport to Santo Domingo in the Dominican Republic.

Investigators quickly recovered the plane's cockpit voice recorder and sent it to the NTSB's Washington laboratory.

NTSB board member George Black said an initial review of the cockpit tape had nothing out of the ordinary. He said the tape indicated the first officer was flying the plane. The captain and first officer usually alternate flying duties on each trip. Early clues pointed to possible engine problems.

The European-built plane, which was 13 years old, was powered by General Electric CF6 engines that have been the subject of several airworthiness directives from the Federal Aviation Administration. But investigators said they were considering all possibilities, including sabotage. The FBI sent investigators to the crash site, as it does for all major crashes.

The plane took off from JFK's Runway 31-Left at 9:14 a.m. Monday, according to a radar track provided by Megadata, a Greenwich, Conn., company that provides flight information to airports and airlines.

The twin-engine jet banked left, to the south, as it climbed and picked up speed. One minute after takeoff, it was 1,700 feet above Jamaica Bay, climbing at 260 mph.

The plane continued to bank to the left and pick up speed. But Megadata said that at 9:16 a.m., when the plane was 2,800 feet high, its transponder suddenly stopped sending a radar signal.

Witnesses said they heard a loud boom and then saw the plane tumble out of the sky, dropping large pieces in the bay that separates the airport from the narrow strip of beach and suburban homes.

Geraldine Boston, 74, had just gotten off the Q35 bus in Queens when she happened to look up. She saw two large pieces drop off the plane _ one was box-shaped, the other dome-shaped _ that may have come from an engine.

"The plane quivered and then went nose down," she said. "All I saw was flames."

Christopher Jones, 14, who was out of school due to Veterans Day, said he heard a whooshing sound that got progressively louder. He looked outside because it sounded different than the many planes that roar over his neighborhood.

"I caught a quick glimpse of it coming out of the sky," Jones said. "Then I ran out of the house looking for my brother. My house literally shook."

Jones said he found his twin brother to make sure he was okay and then went to the Texaco station about 100 yards down the street, where he had worked pumping gas during the summer.

A large portion of an engine had crashed at the station, and the owner was trying to put out the fire with a garden hose. Within moments, Jones said, the street was filled with fire and rescue trucks.

At least six houses were destroyed, and several others were seriously damaged _ in some cases, the siding was melted off the homes by intense heat. Forty-one people were treated and released for minor injuries.

Officials said the wreckage was concentrated over a relatively small area. "When we went up in the helicopter and saw it, it was amazing how the plane landed in one small, confined area," said New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani.

But when the Coast Guard pulled a large tail section from the water, it suggested that critical parts of the plane may have broken off before impact.

"The tail in the water kind of sets us back to square one," said James McKenna, an aviation safety analyst. "It raises the possibility of some kind of structural failure independent of the engines. The investigators are going to have to figure out how that tail ended up in relatively pristine condition in the water."

As with other international flights, the checked luggage on Flight 587 was subject to more rigorous security procedures. Luggage of passengers who fit a suspicious profile should have been examined in an explosive-detection machine. In addition, the airline should have used a "positive bag match," where luggage was removed from the plane if its owner did not board the plane.

None of the passengers on the plane was on the federal watch list for possible terrorists, a government official said Monday night.

General Electric CF6 engines, like the ones that powered the plane, have come under scrutiny before.

In some cases, disks inside the engine have cracked and broken apart as the engine was running. To correct the problem, GE and the FAA have increased the interval of maintenance inspections and, when needed, replaced the disks with a redesigned model. But every time officials think they have the problem solved, a new variation has cropped up.

In one incident last year, a CF6 engine on a US Airways Boeing 767 exploded during a ground test in Philadelphia. The NTSB said the incident was so serious that, had it happened in the air, the plane might have crashed.

McKenna said the engine "has had a string of problems associated with fatigue and cracking in the guts of the engine that worry safety officials. If those parts fail, there is no way to contain them."

GE spokesman Rick Kennedy said the problems were isolated incidents. "By and large, we have had the problem completely under control," he said.

Kennedy said the engine has "an extraordinary record, but we've been very aggressive when we have had issues."

Investigators are also likely to consider other mechanical malfunctions and the possibility of a collision with birds. JFK has had repeated problems with bird strikes.

The crash prompted Pentagon officials to beef up air patrols over New York and other U.S. cities.

Shortly after the crash, fighter planes were launched from several bases to patrol airspace over the entire country. After several hours, once it became evident there was no national security threat, the patrols were scaled back.

_ Information from Times staff writer Paul de la Garza and the Associated Press was included in this report.