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Children learn of tragedy firsthand

When a plane crashed in the yard one house away from the Rockaways home of 6-year-old Megan Rochelle, it broke a promise her mother made Sept. 11.

"I promised her that something like that would never happen again, and last night she said, "But it did,' " Laura Rochelle recalled Tuesday as her daughter played on the sidewalk a half-block from the crash site.

Rochelle and her husband, Robert, were among dozens of parents in the tight-knit Queens community struggling to explain how their neighborhood could be devastated twice in two months. First was the World Trade Center attack, then came Monday's crash of American Airlines Flight 587.

Robert Rochelle is a firefighter with Ladder 132 in Brooklyn, which lost all its working members when the twin towers collapsed on his day off. Some 70 of his neighbors _ firefighters, cops, bond traders _ also were killed in the attack.

How to explain it all to a child?

"I wish I had an answer," Laura Rochelle said. "It's a lot. You'd never think in your life that you'd see these things next door, or have to explain it to your children."

In the last two months, the children of Rockaway have learned too much too fast. Memorial services are as much a part of life as a weekend barbecue; the local Catholic church has held a dozen. The gap in the Manhattan skyline is visible from their yards.

Joe Barasso, at 10, "is world-wise now," said his father, Bruce Barasso. "He's seen a lot in his 10-year-old life."

Barasso's wife and two children had to flee their home when the plane crashed. A day later, kids played on the street near discarded surgical gloves, police barricades and yellow crime scene tape.

"It's funny with the kids," Barasso said. "It kind of rolls off their backs."

The Rockaways sit on a sandy peninsula separating Jamaica Bay from the Atlantic Ocean, a picturesque slice of Queens immortalized by the Ramones in the single Rockaway Beach. To the locals, New York City is Manhattan; the feel is distinctly suburban.

"It's an absolutely beautiful community," said Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, who has attended 10 services in the neighborhood since the World Trade Center atrocity.

"It's a very traumatic experience these kids must be going through," said Brian McManus, 51, who lives a block from the Barassos.

Barasso and his family were able to return to their home Monday night, although his shaken wife insisted their two sons sleep on the floor of the master bedroom.

By Tuesday morning, things were somewhat back to normal. Barasso's older son, Brett, went to school, and Joe was helping repair a door knocked down by firefighters shortly after the crash.

"I think we kind of realized it's a crazy coincidence," Barasso said.