NEW YORK -- An American Airlines jetliner en route to the Dominican Republic with 255 people aboard crashed moments after takeoff Monday from Kennedy Airport, setting homes ablaze. There was no immediate word on the number of deaths or injuries.
Bush administration officials said the FBI believed an explosion occurred aboard the plane. But a federal law enforcement source, speaking on condition of anonymity, said there was no early evidence of any terrorist involvement.
Still, the city -- on edge after the Sept. 11 attack in which hijacked airliners brought down the World Trade Center -- was put on high alert. Fighter jets flew over the scene in the Rockaway section of Queens.
Flight 587, an Airbus A300, went down shortly after 9 a.m in the waterfront neighborhood 15 miles from Manhattan, setting houses on fire in a densely populated section of the city, home to many firefighters who were among the dead and the rescuers at the Trade Center. A plume of thick, black smoke could be seen miles away; flames billowed high above the treetops.
The FAA said there were 246 passengers and nine crew members aboard the plane.
Witnesses reported an engine and other debris falling off the plane as it came down.
"I heard the explosion and I looked out the window and saw the flames and the smoke," said Milena Owens, who lives two blocks from the crash site and was putting Thanksgiving decorations on her window. "And I just thought, 'Oh no, not again."'
The National Transportation Safety Board was designated the lead agency in the investigation, signaling that officials were leaning toward the theory that a catastrophic mechanical problem was at fault, the law enforcement source in Washington said.
In 1996, TWA Flight 800 left Kennedy Airport for Paris and crashed off Long Island, killing all 230 people aboard. The NTSB concluded the jet was destroyed by a fuel tank explosion, probably caused by a wiring spark.
All metropolitan-area airports -- Kennedy, LaGuardia and Newark, N.J. -- were closed after the crash, and international flights were diverted to other cities. All bridges and tunnels into New York were closed except to emergency vehicles. The United Nations was partially locked down.
In Washington, President Bush met with advisers, seeking details of the crash.
A senior administration official said that no threats against airplanes had been received and that the pilot reported no trouble.
A U.S. official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said intelligence agencies, the FBI and the Federal Aviation Administration were reviewing all recent intelligence for any signs that terrorism was involved.
At the Pentagon, two defense officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, said no additional fighters had been dispatched to the New York area and that the entire matter was being handled by the FAA as a domestic disaster with no apparent military implications.
Mayor Rudolph Giuliani canceled his morning events and headed to the scene, where he said: "People should remain calm. We're just being tested one more time and we're going pass this test, too."
"Now we should focus all our efforts on finding survivors," Giuliani said.
"The first thing that went through my mind is, 'Oh, my God.' I just passed the church in which I've been to, I think, 10 funerals here. Rockaway was particularly hard hit. 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."
Triage centers were set up a high school and an elementary school, both of which were closed for the Veterans Day holiday.
A hospital near the crash site said it treated about 15 people for smoke inhalation and several others for abrasions. All of the injured had been on the ground, not the plane, and none appeared to be critically injured.
The plane had been scheduled to leave at 8 a.m. and arrive in Santo Domingo at 12:48 p.m.
Witnesses reported debris falling from sky.
Tom Lynch, a retired firefighter, told WABC-TV that he was walking near his home when he heard a plane explode in the sky. "It wasn't that loud. I heard a 'WHOOF' and I saw what looked like a wing falling off the airplane," Lynch said.
"All of the sudden, I see an engine fall off, and it went to the side, and in 10, 15 seconds it went down," witness Kevin O'Rourke told WABC. "An engine fell off."
Another witness, John Maroney, 47, said the engine plummeted onto a Texaco station near his house, and pieces of plane were a couple of blocks away.
"That's probably what shook us up from our beds. The whole house jumped," he said. "We were all out there with fire extinguishers and hoses, but we couldn't do much."
Witness Phyllis Paul said she heard the plane's engine. "It was very, very loud. Because of what happened Sept. 11, it gave me a chill," she told CNN. "It was getting louder and louder and I looked out the window. I saw a piece of metal falling from the sky."
Jackie Weiss, 50, a secretary at Rockaway High School, said an engine fell on a house down the street from hers.
"I'm really devastated," she said. "My own son was telling me, when I was upset by the World Trade Center, 'But you didn't lose any family members.' But seeing something like this ... I feel the world is coming to an end."
In the Dominican Republic, relatives of passengers crowded Santo Domingo's airport, sobbing and grasping each other after hearing about the crash.
"Oh my God!" said Miriam Fajardo, crying after being told that her sister and three nephews were aboard. "I hadn't seen them in eight years. Now they're gone."
The Trade Center was destroyed by two Boeing 767s hijacked out of Boston's Logan Airport. One of the planes was operated by American, the other by United.
Airbus said American Airlines has a fleet of 35 A300s.
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