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Community hard hit, yet again

The question lingered on the lips of high school teacher Peggy Epstein.

"How much tragedy are we supposed to take?" she asked, as she stood in the front yard of her two-story brick home in Belle Harbor, just blocks from the crash of an American Airlines passenger jet that carried 260 people.

The plane crash not only incinerated four homes in this middle-class neighborhood, but it destroyed the sense of normalcy that slowly had been returning to the seaside community, about 90 minutes from Manhattan.

In the two months since the World Trade Center attacks, the funerals of firefighters, police officers and others had come one after the other in this Rockaway section of Queens. The neighborhood lost 70 to 100 residents, according to news reports.

"Rockaway was particularly hard hit," Mayor Rudolph Giuliani said. "The disproportionate number of the people we lost _ not just the police and fire, but even the workers at the World Trade Center _ were from Rockaway and Staten Island."

Epstein, 45, whose husband was about to walk into one of the World Trade Center towers at the time of the first attack, said the grief has been numbing. She grew up here and has raised three children in what always had been a safe, comfortable community.

"The dreams we've worked for, for 20 years, we're afraid we're losing them," she said.

A few blocks away, the Rev. Louis DeGaetano, assistant pastor at St. Francis DeSales Catholic Church, said the church has conducted about 10 funerals since the attacks.

On Monday, he was looking out the window when he saw Flight 587 go down in a blur, about a block away. He ran outside to find utter chaos _ the air black with smoke, people screaming, debris falling from the sky and houses burning.

"We weren't sure what was happening," he said.

Hours after the crash, he carried a breathing mask in his hands and a resolute look on his face. Residents, he said, were rising to the occasion. In his pocket he carried the names and phone numbers of a half-dozen people who had a bed to offer anyone who lost their home to Monday's devastation.

"I think we realize we're all in this together and we're going to be supportive of each other," DeGaetano said.

A few feet away, 15-year-old Siobhan English was not quite as sure of her ability to navigate more grief. She stood with a group of teenage friends and dreaded the losses yet to be tallied several blocks away.

"All the funerals we'll go to again," she said, "It's going to be horrible."

The plane crash transformed the usually quiet neighborhood into a disaster scene: Hundreds of police officers, firefighters and paramedics responded to the fires spawned by the airplane crash. Helicopters hovered overhead. Fighter planes patrolled the skyline.

It certainly wasn't the climate Christopher Hila Sr. had in mind when he moved back to the old neighborhood after having lived in New Port Richey for 11 years.

Hila's 5-year-old son was playing with his dog, Brownie, on Monday morning when he saw the airliner go down.

The 33-year-old electrician, who moved to New York just days before the terrorist attacks, said he has been shocked by what has transpired since moving back.

"It's not what we expected," he said.

In downtown Rockaway Beach, Gen Tyne, 15, a high school freshman, sat quietly with a group of teenagers in a pizza parlor.

Sipping sodas, she and her friends talked about rumors they had heard about people who live in the neighborhood who were missing and feared dead.

"We don't know who we've lost this time," she said.

Outside, Noreen Skammel, 28, pushed her 18-month-old son in a stroller, hoping to get inside the busy restaurant, which was jammed with hungry rescue workers.

When she heard the crash, she said, she was terrified, thinking it was another terrorist attack.

"We've lost so many people because so many cops and firemen live here," she said. "It's just a constant procession of funerals, every week. Once again, all normalcy will stop. It's sad, so very sad."

_ Information from Cox News Service was used in this report.