Shock and anguish swept through the Dominican Republic Monday as word spread that 150 people from this Caribbean nation were on board the American Airlines flight that crashed shortly after takeoff from New York's John F. Kennedy International Airport.
The jetliner, carrying 255 people, crashed moments after takeoff in a residential neighborhood five miles from Kennedy Airport.
The flight had been due to arrive at 12:51 p.m. Authorities said there was no immediate indication of what caused the crash, which came two months after hijacked planes brought down the World Trade Center in New York and crashed into the Pentagon.
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In New York City Monday night, a candlelight vigil was held in the Manhattan neighborhood of Washington Heights, home to the city's nearly half a million immigrants from the Dominican Republic.
City and state officials joined Washington Heights residents in mourning those who were lost.
According to a relative, the dead include 32-year-old Navy Petty Officer Ruben Rodriguez, who had just finished a seven-month tour of duty on the USS Enterprise as part of the war on terrorism.
Some people waiting for the flight to arrive collapsed with shock at the news. Authorities escorted relatives into a separate area of the airport at Santo Domingo, the Dominican capital where the ill-fated flight was headed.
"Oh my God," sobbed Miriam Fajardo after being told that her sister, Norma Lilian Baloi and three nephews were aboard the flight bound for Santo Domingo's Las Americas International Airport. "I hadn't seen them in eight years. Now they're gone."
"I woke up early just to greet them," said Melida Reinoso who had gone to the airport to meet her husband and son. "Why did this happen?"
"Not the child, please not the child," said Germania Brito who was waiting for her sister Mariana Flores, her sister's husband, John, and their 2-year-old son Isaias. "May God help us all."
Dozens of relatives, awaiting an official passenger list, came to Santo Domingo's Las Americas International Airport. Shrieks echoed throughout the airport as men collapsed in tears and women sobbed uncontrollably. Psychologists and medics were on hand for counseling.
Dominican President Hipolito Mejia told reporters he was profoundly saddened by the crash of the Airbus.
Mejia, speaking at the presidential palace, said he was in constant contact with the Dominican consulate in New York for news about the crash. The consulate had informed him that about 150 Dominicans were on board, Mejia said.
Some time before the ill-fated flight was scheduled to arrive, relatives eager to meet family members on the flight began arriving at Santo Domingo's international airport.
Many in this poor Spanish-speaking nation had been waiting years to see loved ones living and working in the United States.
Whil many assumed the worst, Eduardo Fresola was told his brother, Jose Antonio Nicolas Fresola, missed the flight because his 7-year-old sister got lost in the airport on her way back from the bathroom.
"I can't believe it, he wasn't on the plane," exclaimed Fresola, who earlier thought his brother, who he hadn't seen in three years, was aboard the flight. "He's alive. He's safe."
According to relatives gathered at the airport, one of those aboard the flight had survived the Sept. 11 attack on the World Trade Center.
Many were unaware of the crash and broke down in anguished cries when they were told. Some people fainted and were treated by paramedics at the airport.
Authorities quickly set up a separate area in the airport for relatives to wait for more news, keeping them away from the media. By mid-day about 100 relatives had gathered at the airport.
One man, Jose Paveras, was weeping as his reunion with his wife and daughter turned into an anguished wait. A woman, Maria Flores, said she was waiting for news of her sister, who was meant to be on the flight.
Security was visibly ramped up at the airport, with soldiers posted in several places.
The Dominican Republic is a country of some eight million people that shares the Caribbean island of Hispaniola with Haiti. Many Dominicans have emigrated to the United States.
Home visits by migrants are eagerly awaited by their families, not just because of the reunions but because people save up money to bring home consumer goods that are cheaper or more readily available in the United States such as televisions, clothes and shoes.
The last major plane crash involving the Dominican Republic was in February 1996, when a Dominican Alas Nacionales Boeing 757 carrying 189 people plunged into waters off the Dominican Republic, killing all on board.
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