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Dominicans' annual trip turned from joy to grief

For many Dominicans living abroad, a trip home to visit loved ones was an annual pleasure. But for those aboard American Airlines Flight 587 _ the sailor from the USS Enterprise, the bride-to-be, the waitress who survived the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks _ those reunions will never come.

There was no indication what caused the plane to crash as it took off Monday from New York's Kennedy airport. Most of the 260 people aboard were Dominican, consular officials said.

Virgilia Mateo, was heading to the Dominican Republic to marry her husband of 30 years in a Roman Catholic ceremony on Dec. 22.

"I'm missing what I love the most," said Rafael Mateo, a 49-year-old taxi driver in the Bronx who had flown back earlier for his church wedding. "We still haven't decided what to do. There is too much pain."

After meeting and marrying in a civil ceremony 30 years ago, the couple moved to the Bronx. Working day and night, they tried to make a living, raise four children and save for a large Catholic ceremony in this Spanish-speaking nation.

Aboard the plane with Virgilia Mateo was her grandson, 4-year-old Steven Lora.

An estimated 1-million Dominicans live in the United States, most in New York City.

One was Rosanna Ogando, 22, who had had it with New York. Even though she had plenty of friends, two jobs and good wages, she no longer felt safe in the city. The World Trade Center disaster convinced her that it was time to go home to Santo Domingo.

"I'm leaving all the cold weather for you," Ogando joked with her friend Fabio Valenzuela when she stopped by his apparel store in Washington Heights last week to buy sandals.

Ogando booked a one-way ticket on American Airlines Flight 587 for Saturday. But she fell behind on her packing and switched at the last minute to the Monday flight. On her last day in the city, she celebrated by getting a new hairstyle.

"I'm leaving before something happens to me," she told her friend Luisa Esteve as the older woman clipped and tinted her hair.

Tuesday evening, Ogando's mother was expected to arrive at John F. Kennedy International Airport to take her daughter's body home. The last time she saw her daughter was when she left home as a teenager three years ago.

Another victim was Rafael Ravelo, a 40-year-old mayoral candidate from Ramon Santana, a small town surrounded by sugar cane fields about 47 miles east of Santo Domingo. He had been working in New York to build a house back home.

On Tuesday, campaign posters with his picture and name were still plastered over telephone poles.

"Life in New York gave him his home," father-in-law Jorge Santana, 48, said of Ravelo's peach-colored home, one of the nicest in the neighborhood. "People loved him a lot."

His sister, Giovanis Ravelo, 35, held a towel to her eyes and rocked her body in anguish on a rocking chair on the front porch. "Oh My God! I can't take any more," she said. "How will I survive without him?"

Other victims included Hilda Yolanda Mayor, a waiter who worked on the first floor of one of the World Trade Center towers and survived the Sept. 11 attacks.

Another was U.S. Navy Petty Officer Ruben Rodriguez, who took the flight to meet his wife and children in the Dominican Republic. The 32-year-old was visiting family in New York after a seven-month stint on the Enterprise, the first U.S. aircraft carrier to report for combat in the war on terrorism.

While some relatives boarded flights to New York on Tuesday to identify the bodies of loved ones, others remained to get counseling from one of more than two dozen psychologists flown in from Spanish speaking cities in the United States and Latin America.

The Red Cross was asking family members for toothbrushes, shaving implements, dental records and other things to identify victims.

Some 262 bodies have been recovered from the New York City borough of Queens, where the airplane crashed.

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