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Close-knit community shares loss

If anything symbolized the powerful connections between Dominican immigrants in New York and their homeland, Flight 587 was it. The well-known American Airlines route even merited a line in a merengue song.

"How joyful it could be to go on Flight 587," said Juan Carlos Nunez, translating the lyric from Spanish.

Under clocks that show the time in Los Angeles, Tokyo and the Dominican Republic, Nunez has often booked people for the flight at his travel agency in Washington Heights, the heart of New York's Dominican community. He arranged tickets for at least seven of the people who were on the flight that crashed Monday, minutes after takeoff from Kennedy Airport.

"It's really depressing," Nunez said Tuesday. "They always come here with a smile because they're excited about something they're going to do."

Nunez clutched a list of the more than 260 victims killed in the crash, most of them Dominican. He also held the travel itinerary for one passenger: Roberto Despradel, who was traveling with his father, Lorenzo, and an infant.

Many of New York's approximately 407,000 Dominicans make the 3{-hour journey back to their homeland a few times a year, laden with gifts of clothing and food for relatives. Nunez sells about 150 tickets a week for trips to the Dominican Republic on American and other airlines.

On Tuesday, victims' families converged at Alianza Dominicana, a Washington Heights social service agency. A police bus then shuttled them to a family assistance center at the Jacob Javits Convention Center.

Wilson Martinez wanted to find a way to send the body of his cousin, Felix Gervacio, to his family in the Dominican Republic.

Gervacio, a 36-year-old taxi driver, went back two or three times a year to visit his father and sister. "He was a little hesitant after Sept. 11," Martinez said. "He didn't really want to travel."

Albanea Veloz sobbed after each word, recounting family members who died in the crash. "My father, my mother, my brother," she said.

Outside, Wilberto Then considered a sidewalk memorial of flowers, candles and a poster that read, in Spanish, "We are in mourning."

Then, 48, came to the United States when he was 21 and is now a U.S. citizen. But he still travels to the Dominican Republic at least once a year to visit relatives and tend to a home, surrounded by coconut and mango trees, that he owns in Savana de la Mar.

The close-knit Dominican-American community has been shattered by the crash, he said.

"What happened to them, it's like it happened to me," he said. "We don't know each other, but we are like brothers and sisters."

A few blocks away, Jason Reyes and Daisy de la Cruz built a memorial of flickering candles. Arranged in the red, white and blue pattern of the Dominican flag, they filled the air with the scents of cherry and lemon.

"To a community that's so united in so many ways, it really hurts," Reyes said.