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Emergency Response to Crash of American Airlines Flight 587

Info: 3437 words (14 pages) Dissertation
Published: 11th Dec 2019

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Tagged: Aviation

Emergency Response to Crash of American Airlines Flight 587


Although the probability of an aircraft accident is the minimum, its effects can be catastrophic. The crash of flight 587 in 2001 was a tragic incident that left all the passengers and crewmembers dead. Flight 587 had just left the John F. Kennedy Airport when some of its parts burst into flames about three minutes later while in midair. The accident also claimed the lives of five individuals on the ground. The incidence burnt about 12 homes. Moreover, the accident resulted in the destruction of property in the Rockaway neighbourhood. Initially, various experts had attributed various factors such as terrorism, sabotage, and mechanical failure to the accident. However, NTSB concluded that the disconnection of the plane’s vertical stabilizer caused the accident. The first section of this discussion focuses on the summary of the crash, the second focuses on emergency response, while the third focuses on the information that NTSB reported on the crash regarding emergency response.

Key words: aircraft accident, crash, flight, passenger, crewmember, jetliner, terrorism, sabotage, mechanical problem, emergency response.

Emergency Response to Crash of American Airlines Flight 587

I. Summary of Crash

The American Airlines Flight 587 that was heading towards Santo Domingo from New York crashed in Queens in mid-November of 2001 (Kleinfield, 2001). The jetliner had 260 people with all of them perishing in the crash. The plane was carrying nine crewmembers and flight attendants and 251 passengers. The jetliner crashed in Queens a few minutes after taking off at about a quarter past nine in the morning at the John F. Kennedy International Airport. The majority of the passengers on board were immigrants of the Dominican origin residing in Washington Heights. Moreover, the crash affected twelve homes in the neighbourhood. The crash was the fourth among the major plane crashes since 1996 indicating that it had a significant impact. According to NTSB, post-crash fire and various impact forces destroyed the plane. Post-accident reports indicate that the plane was uneventful. The flight had arrived at the airport on the previous night from Costa Rica.

A. What Caused the Crash?

Eyewitnesses claimed that they witnessed one of the engines bursting into flames when the plane was still in the air. The engine then separated from the rest of the plane veering towards the ground. However, they were not sure on whether it was the right engine or the left engine. After this separation, the plane twisted, turning on its nose, and plunged into the ground. Aviation experts investigating the crash had various factors that could explain the crash. These factors include terrorism, sabotage, and mechanical problems. Before the crash, the engine of the plane had various problems, and aviation engineers had to equip the plane with a pair of general electric CF-6 engines (Kleinfield, 2001). Aviation experts reported that the internal components of the engines had a history of breaking free piercing the outer parts of the engine.

The most probable reason for the crash was the disconnection of the vertical stabilizer due to excessive loads. The creation of the unnecessary additional load may have been the mistake of the first officer. The NTSB believes that the officer may have injected several excessive and unnecessary inputs on the rudder pedal (NTSB, 2004). The inputs were beyond the design of the plane resulting in the accident. However, the NTSB also blames the design of the Airbus for the unnecessary inputs. Moreover, it is important to mention that the rudder is connected to the vertical stabilizer. Then, a problem with any of the two parts disables both parts. Furthermore, aviation experts argue that officers use rudders on rare occasions indicating that maybe the spoilers of Flight 587 had failed (NTSB, 2004). Spoilers control roll, but in case they become non-functional, then officers can use the rudder. Although the plane had no major issue during the fuelling process, reports indicate that the avionics officer had claimed that number two pitch trim had a problem just one hour to departure time. However, avionics experts solved the problem, and the AFS check showed no fault.

The plane started experiencing turbulence issues about two minutes after take-off. These issues prompted the officers to introduce various procedures such as maximum power. Nevertheless, three seconds later, the right rear attachment of the vertical stabilizer fractured resulting to a loud thump. A few seconds later, the vertical stabilizer detached from the plane. The CVR records show that a minute later, none of the officers grunted signifying a problem. The plane then crashed (NTSB, 2004). The post-accident reviews revealed that both pilots and individuals in the aviation industry lacked clear information on the rudder systems and held wrong views about it. The pilots of Flight 587 may have held similar perceptions resulting in the wrong use of rudder systems. Consequently, this wrong use affected the vertical stabilizer leading to its separation. Expert analysis indicates that it is likely that they were unaware that the system cannot work at high airspeed.

B. What Areas were Impacted by the Crash?

The crash caused a serious impact on the ground and to the people onboard. The total fatalities were 265. Of the 265.251, there were passengers, two flight attendants, five people on the ground, and seven cabin crew (NTSB, 2004). The disengagement of the vertical stabilizer also leads to the destruction of the property. The separation caused the engines to rest. On the ground, the crash affected several homes on both large and small scale. The crash destroyed four homes, damaged three homes substantially, and caused minor damage to three other homes. The plane crash also caused minor damage to a gas station due to the impact forces of the plane’s left engine. The right engine affected a boat and home significantly.

The crash affected the Rockaway’s neighbourhood that accommodates a significant number of police personnel and fire-fighters. The crash resulted in mental disturbance as the personnel was still recovering from the 9/11 attacks (Wakin, 2001). The incident also affected the Jamaican Bay destroying property. The vertical stabilizer of the plane’s rudder fell into the bay almost one mile from the main site of the accident.

The crash affected certain areas in New York indirectly. The incidence facilitated a temporary closure of all major airports in New York. These airports include the Newark, John F. Kennedy, and LaGuardia. Nonetheless, they reopened after some time to allow incoming flights. The decision to close down the airports temporarily affected the flow of traffic at the airports scaring passengers who were already scared after the 9/11 attacks. Moreover, accident prompted the temporary closure of tunnels and bridges within New York. Furthermore, the Flight 587 crash affected business at the Empire State Building. The police had to evacuate people for security purposes. The accident also gave the customs officials at the Las Americas International Airport a hard time (CNN, 2001). A significant number of relatives of the passengers were already at the airport ready to receive them when they got the news of the crash. The customs department had a difficult time calming them down.

II. Emergency Response to Crash

A. What was the Local Emergency Response?

Aircraft accidents can occur anywhere and at any time. Although the crashing of Flight 587 was a unique incident, the emergency following the accident was also unique. Since the Flight 587 was a large aircraft, it required additional emergency systems. Various groups and individuals showed up at the site to offer their help. The emergency response was prompt with various volunteers, fire-fighters, police personnel, and residents. Fire-fighting trucks and ambulances arrived almost immediately to offer help. In this case, it is important to note that the local emergency response was prompt as various groups cooperated to help normalize the situation. Every individual, including the young, felt that they had a responsibility in reducing the effects of the fire. Hence, they help reduce the number of fatalities on the ground.

1. Who was the first on the scene and what was the action taken? The primary responders at aircraft accidents scenes are the law enforces. However, for the case of the Flight 587, it was difficult for the law enforcers to seal off the scenes of the accident from the public. The incident attracted a significant number of individuals from the neighbourhood. The majority of these people had lost close family member or friend during the 9/11 attacks (Bella & Fearnow, 2011). Nevertheless, the police and fire-fighters responded promptly. They arrived at the various sites of the wreckage to control the public and help in reducing the effect of the flames. For instance, the police did a commendable job in barring the public from occupying the routes to the Rockaway peninsula. Due to geographical limitations, the place has only two entry points. Therefore, law enforcers helped turn back traffic at each end of the Marine Parkway and Veterans Memorial Bridges to facilitate the easy movement of the emergency vehicles to the peninsula.

The scene of the crash was home to a significant number of security personnel and fire-fighters. When the plane crashed, they responded within almost 15 minutes after the crash. More than 25 fire-fighting unit trucks and about 125 responded to the crash (Bella & Fearnow, 2011). Other fire trucks and fire-fighters from far places joined them later. The first fire-fighting truck, the Ladder Company 137, arrived at the main crash scene with a significant number of fire-fighters. Off-duty officers came out in large numbers to help those on duty. The officers helped hoist ladders and stretch hoses. They performed extraordinarily. Without their presence, it would have taken additional time to put out fires and save additional homes.

Volunteer fire units in the region also offered significant help. Residents and volunteers joined forces used garden hoses o put out fires along the Beach 131st Street (Bella & Fearnow, 2011). When fire-fighters arrived, the residents helped in stretching hoses towards flames. They also offered food, sheets, blankets, and water to the rescue workers. The presence of residents willing to help encouraged the fire-fighters who were already overwhelmed and worn out both physically and mentally.

B. What was the Airport Rescue and Fire Fighting (ARFF) Response to the Crash?

The Airport Rescue and Fire Fighting (ARFF) have the responsibility of mitigating hazardous materials, providing emergency medical care, and facilitating emergency management when an aircraft catches fire. The organization developed a victim assistance program to help the relatives of the deceased identify their bodies. The organization also helped calm the victims, especially those who had lost their property during the incidence. Since the parts of the plane fell on people’s houses, ARFF had the responsibility of helping them fill forms for the plane removal process. The victims were to sign the forms before the removal of the wreckage from the scene (Department of Transportation, 2010). The organization worked with various bodies to provide extra assistance to the victims and family members.

III. What Information did NTSB Report on the Crash Show Regarding the Emergency Response?

A. Were there Errors in Response that Resulted in Additional Deaths?

The nature of the accident was unique prompting disorganized response, especially from the first responders at the site of the accident. Moreover, the fact that parts of the plane burst into flames while still in the air also generated additional confusion. Everyone around that place was scared including both the residents and the emergency response team members. For instance, the presence of fire-fighters and police personnel who had worked at the World Trade Centre affected the response resulting in additional deaths. These individuals were still traumatized by the incident at WTC (Wakin, 2001). Similar sites haunt them affecting their responsibilities. In this case, the fire-fighters were struggling to erase the images of the WTC while trying to help at the Flight 587 crash sites.

The majority of the personnel were still going through a healing process and experiencing the same events affected them psychologically. Moreover, the investigators and emergency response team assumed the accounts of the eyewitnesses. Witnesses reported that they observed the aircraft on fire. This observation indicates that the eyewitnesses saw the first effects of engine surges and discharge of the fuel. Almost 70 eyewitnesses saw a part of the plane on fire while still midair. About 27 of the witnesses confirmed that they saw the plane burst into flames before the disengagement of the tail (Bella & Fearnow, 2011). The NTSB and other emergency response units ignored these eyewitness accounts resulting in additional deaths. Response to these accounts by the NTSB could have minimized the impact of the crash on the ground. Moreover, it could have prepared the emergency response teams to evacuate unsuspecting residents to safe areas.

Failure for the NTSB to study the tollbooth videos contributed to additional deaths. The videos showed the critical moments of flight 587. The NTSB received the file from the FBI almost two and half years after the crash. The videos would have helped the NTSB to respond effectively to the crash and reduce the impact on the ground reducing fatalities. Furthermore, failure by the Air Traffic Control Unit to consider the control inputs contributed to the high number of fatalities (Wakin, 2001). The ATC records indicate that the crew was struggling with a serious problem. Subsequently, failure by the ATC unit to follow up the matter contributed to increased deaths.

B. What Recommendations did NTSB Make for Emergency Response?

The NTSB made various recommendations after the Flight 587 accident. The board offered recommendations on emergency response and the maintenance of airplanes.

1. Recommendations for local emergency response. The reports of the crash record that five lost their lives on the ground. The NTSB acknowledged the performance of the local emergency response. Various groups within New York including fire-fighters, residents, security personnel, and volunteers turned up in large numbers to help in containing a fire and turning debris to get bodies and help those buried in the debris. Thus, the NTSB recommends that the local governments should be keen on equipping the local fire-fighting units with enough equipment to improve their effectiveness in times of emergency. Moreover, the board recommends that the government should be keen on training additional individuals, both young and old, on how to fight fires. During the crash, a young volunteer stopped riding his bike to go and assist in controlling the fire.

The board recommends that the local government should perform fire drills to prepare the residents in case of any emergencies. The drills will help prepare residents psychologically for any emergency reducing the chances of confusion. Moreover, the drills will equip residents and firefighting agencies with necessary knowledge on how to manage fires. The NTSB encourages improved communication between the various fire-fighting agencies, volunteers, and residents. Communication facilitates successful response in case of an emergency. The various bodies within a certain locality should be in touch with one another through telephones, social network groups, and radios at all times. Moreover, the local agencies should hold regular meetings to one another and improve their working relations (Department of Transportation, 2010). In this case, it becomes easier for them to work together during an emergency. They should also meet to know their responsibilities and specific areas.

2. Recommendations for ARFF response. The NTSB also made various recommendations to the ARFF response after the Flight 587 accident. The board recommended that ARFF should cooperate with various medical groups to generate and offer guidance to the ARFF personnel. The medical groups should train the personnel on how to deal with victims of an aircraft fire accident and reduce the number of fatalities. Moreover, the medical groups should train these individuals on how to behave during rescue missions. The groups should make it clear to them that it is dangerous to strike or roll over people who have severe injuries or dead bodies when driving the ARFF vehicles. The NTSB also recommends that the medical groups should assist the ARFF officers with proper equipment training to enable them to know how to deal with the victims and save lives.

The NTSB also recommends that the ARFF should liaise with various airports to create an Airport Emergency Plan (AEP) to satisfy the specific needs of individual airports. The board also insists that airports and ARFF should update the AEPs on a regular basis and incorporate it into the normal training sessions (Department of Transportation, 2010). The plan will help the ARFF be aware of the current trends concerning aircraft accidents and prepare accordingly. Moreover, it will equip the ARFF officers with skills necessary to contain aircraft fires saving time and lives during emergencies. Furthermore, the board requires that ARFF should create a checklist for emergency response. This checklist will ensure that all personnel are familiar with their responsibilities during emergencies.

The checklist will also include the names of the agencies that the ARFF can contact for help. The ARFF personnel should review this checklist on a regular basis, especially during training sessions and normal practice procedures. The NTSB also recommends that the ARFF should adopt a similar version of the National Incident Management System to improve its emergency preparedness program (Department of Transportation, 2010). The system includes various entities include government, the private sector, and non-governmental bodies. This system provides information on how the different entities cooperate to prevent, prepare, respond, recover, and mitigate an emergency. All responders under this system undergo vigorous training to prepare them adequately. In the same manner, the ARFF should develop a system that includes various bodies, both government and private, within and outside airports. This system will help the ARFF respond to emergencies, such as the Flight 587 accident, quickly and in an organized manner.


Bella, T., & Fearnow, B. (2011). Remembering America’s second-deadliest plane crash. The Atlantic. Retrieved from https://www.theatlantic.com/national/archive/2011/11/remembering-americas-second-deadliest-plane-crash/248313/

Cable News Network (CNN) (2001). Feds eye engines in air crash. CNN.com. Retrieved from http://edition.cnn.com/2001/US/11/12/newyork.crash/

Department of Transportation (2010). Aviation emergency responses guidebook. Florida: Department of Transportation-State of Florida.

Kleinfield, N. (2001). The crash of flight 587: The overview; 260 on jet die in Queens crash; 6 to 9 missing as 12 homes burn; doubts link to terrorism. The New York Times. Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/2001/11/13/nyregion/crash-flight-587-overview-260-jet-die-queens-crash-6-9-missing-12-homes-burn-us.html?mcubz=0

National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) (2004). In-flight separation of vertical stabilizer American Airlines Flight 587 Airbus Industrie A300-605R, N14053 Belle Harbor, New York November 12, 2001. Washington D.C: National Transportation Safety Board.

Wakin, D. (2001). The flight of Flight 578: The response; New crisis, but this time in backyards of rescuers. The New York Times.

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