By Betsy Scheinbart
With Sept. 11 still fresh in their minds, Red Cross workers, grief counselors, religious leaders and physicians sprang into action again Monday, gathering at the Ramada Plaza Hotel at JFK Airport to offer help to people who lost a loved one in the crash of Flight 587.
The hotel served as a family assistance center for about 150 to 200 people Monday. Grief counseling and other services were available in the ground floor ballrooms, while American Airlines paid for many family members of passengers killed in the crash to stay in rooms at the hotel.
Gov. George Pataki, Mayor Rudolph Giuliani and state Sen. Malcolm Smith (D-St. Albans) met with the victims’ families at the Ramada after visiting the site of the crash in the Rockaways.
Many of the grieving people were Spanish-speaking, so the Red Cross provided dozens of translators and Spanish-language counselors at the hotel, said Ximena Rua-Merkin, director of the Queens chapter of the Red Cross.
A total of 115 Red Cross volunteers and staff offered general mental health counseling and medical services at the Ramada and the site of the crash in the Rockaways Monday, Rua-Merkin said.
Counselors and physicians from St. Vincent’s Catholic Medical Centers and Jamaica Hospital joined with Red Cross workers at the hotel, located near Federal Circle on John F. Kennedy International Airport.
Many of the counselors had not only helped out during the Sept. 11 disaster, they also served in similar capacities at the same hotel after TWA Flight 800 crashed off the coast of Long Island in 1996.
The hotel was also used as a family center after the crashes of Swissair Flight 111 in 1998 and EgyptAir Flight 990 in 1999, both of which took off from JFK.
Vito Recinello, a paramedic and counselor from St. Vincent’s, said he had been to the hotel for “too many” plane crashes. When he heard about the disaster, he said he thought: “Oh, my God, we are doing this again.”
Inside the hotel, grieving people kept repeating: “Why? Why? Why,” Recinello said, but he did not hear anyone place blame on anyone else for the crash.
Although it happened a day after the two-month anniversary of the attack on the World Trade Center, there was no evidence at press time that the plane crash was anything other than an accident.
At a news conference outside the Ramada Monday afternoon, Pataki and Giuliani said they were hesitant to speculate on the cause of the crash.
“You suspend judgment,” Giuliani said. “You have to presume the worst and hope for the best.”
Both men expressed their deep sympathy for the families of the crash victims.
“Our hearts go out to them,” Giuliani said. “We want to do whatever we can to help them.”
Giuliani also lauded the efforts of New York City’s uniformed officers, saying the disaster would have been even worse if they had not responded so quickly.
“Once again, we are in the debt of the firefighter, New York City police officers and Port Authority police officers,” Giuliani said. “The consequences were catastrophic, but it could have been far worse.”
Pataki noted that because the plane hit the ground at an almost vertical level, casualties in Belle Harbor were contained to an isolated area.
The governor said it was ironic that the crash occurred on Veterans Day. He encouraged New Yorkers to draw strength from the veterans of the nation’s armed services and from those who are currently in service overseas.
At least four nuns affiliated with St. Vincent’s joined the more than 30 counselors in the ballrooms. Also providing spiritual counseling and comfort was Rabbi Ari Weiss of the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale.
Weiss made a return visit to the hotel, having already spent time there after TWA Flight 800 exploded off Long Island. His said his synagogue lost three of its members in the World Trade Center disaster.
When asked outside the hotel if his work was taking an emotional toll on him, Weiss said “it’s tougher for the people inside.”
As for the language barrier Weiss faced with some of the victims’ families, he said words were not as important as just being there to hug and hold the grieving people.
“People are so full of pain,” Weiss said. “The key is to listen and show you care.”
The family center was moved to the Jacob Javits Center in Manhattan Tuesday. For more information about services available to family members of the crash victims, call the assistance hotline at 1-800-245-0999.
Reach reporter Betsy Scheinbart by e-mail at Timesledger@aol.com or call 229-0300, Ext. 138.