Airline Disaster Unites Two Catholic Worlds

NEW YORK—Only two months after the destruction of the World Trade Center, New Yorkers began grieving fresh losses. And they were doing so in the midst of an ongoing stream of memorial Masses and funerals for an estimated 4,500 victims of terrorism.

Or, in the case of one parish, in the middle of daily Mass.

American Airlines Flight 587 took off from John F. Kennedy International Airport, carrying 260 people to Santo Domingo in the Dominican Republic. Just minutes later, the Airbus A300 slammed into the middle of a seaside community on the Rockaway peninsula, jolting about 100 people attending the morning 9 am Monday Mass at St. Francis de Sales Church, only about 50 yards away. A woman ran in and yelled, “Everybody get out.”

Msgr. Martin Geraghty, pastor, stopped the Mass, and the church was evacuated. “We saw terrible, dark, black smoke and thought the school building was on fire,” said Kevin Kearney, a parishioner who is principal lawyer for the Diocese of Brooklyn. Kearney's son, Sean, 11, who had been serving at the Mass, said to his father, “Dad, we've got to get out of here.”

Kearney took his son to a nearby house where his in-laws live and returned to see how he could help at the scene. He found himself assisting firefighters stretch out a hose.

Rushing to the scene was Father Robert Romano, a priest of the Diocese of Brooklyn who is chaplain of the New York City Police Department. For at least two hours, he blessed bodies as they were recovered from the wreckage and later offered comfort to grieving families gathering at Kennedy Airport.

Blessing bodies in such a situation can be “tough,” but the priest keeps in mind that each is a “creature of God,” deserving of such respect, Father Romano said in an interview. Respect of the deceased is something police and firefighters “have been doing from the beginning, at the World Trade Center,” he added. “They treat every body with the greatest respect. They know that that's a person who is loved by someone.”

He lauded the quiet heroism of those emergency workers, who “do the work they're trained to do, and do it very well, every single day.”

Dominican Dedication

This time, the initial conclusion of officials that the airline crash was not a terrorist act was little consolation for relatives of the 265 people who lost their lives. But the tragedy seemed to unite two very disparate, albeit traditionally Catholic, ethnic communities in New York: Dominican and Irish.

“This disaster has bound the Belle Harbor community with the Dominican community of our city, many of whom make their homes in our diocese,” said Bishop Thomas Daily of Brooklyn, which includes Queens.

News of the crash had an immediate impact on the Dominican community of New York, whose population is estimated at 450,000. Flight 587 was a popular trip to Santiago, getting people there by lunchtime and leaving them the rest of the day to relax on the Caribbean island. “It was full every day,” said Consuelo Cabrera, secretary at Our Lady of Sorrows Parish in the Corona section of Queens. The parish, which she said is 90% Dominican, lost between seven to 10 people—“people who came to Mass regularly.” The casualties included three sisters from one home.

“The parish and the community are taking it in a very calm way,” Cabrera said. “Everybody is so united. There is a lot of strength.”

In Washington Heights, Gabriel Castilo was waiting for confirmation last week that his wife, Juana, 59, was on board the tragic flight. “It's very difficult,” he said. “I don't know if there is a body. I hope we can recognize her face. I don't want to think about it.”

He and his wife had lived in New York for 37 years, had two daughters and were hoping to buy a house in Florida. “Now everything is gone,” he said.

A friend said Castilo, who attended St. Rose of Lima Church, worked hard at the children's clothing store she owned on Broadway near 160th Street. “I asked her Friday why she was going to the Dominican Republic now,” said Francia Pimentel. “She had postponed the trip four times.”

Irish Spirit

Though the numbers of those killed on the ground, at least five, were far fewer than those on the plane, the pain was no less sharp in the closely knit Belle Harbor neighborhood of Rockaway. St. Francis de Sales Parish had lost six young people who worked in the World Trade Center and six firefighters. Msgr. Geraghty, days earlier, had presided over the memorial Mass of a fireman, the final such Mass in his parish.

Among those killed last week were Kathy Lawler, an administrative assistant in the diocese's stew-ardship and development office, and her son, Christopher, a student at St. John's University School of Law in Queens. Their house was destroyed in the fiery crash. Mrs. Lawler's husband, Thomas, a member of the board of directors of the Tablet, Brooklyn's diocesan newspaper, was at a golf outing, and another son was away at college. The Lawlers’ two daughters were at basketball practice at Bishop Kearney High School in Brooklyn.

“Family was foremost in her life,” said Frank DeRosa, a spokesman for the Diocese of Brooklyn, who worked with Mrs. Lawler.

Also killed were Thomas and Helen Concannon, who had lived in the neighborhood for 37 years.

“It almost sounds hokey now, but the community reacts the way they did after the World Trade Center, by coming together, talking to each other, going to each other's houses, seeing how people are,” Kearney said. Girls in the neighborhood were out buying clothes for the Lawler sisters, whose house was totally destroyed.

“It's just a matter of being present for the people,” Kearney added. “And a lot revolves around the church,” where attendance has been on the rise since Sept. 11 and which was full the morning after the jet crash.

DeRosa said that, for priests of the diocese, the last two months have been pastorally demanding. There is, for example, a need for counseling children who “can't figure out what's happening, for families who have lost people, for handling funerals,” He said. The pastor of the Belle Harbor parish “thought it was over” with the last fireman's Memorial Mass, he said. But then a plane crashes in his back yard.

But the response of priests has been just as heroic as that of fire-fighters. About 150 priests from Brooklyn and the Archdiocese of New York volunteered to take six-hour shifts at Ground Zero, being on hand to bless bodies as they are recovered and to talk with stressed out recovery workers.

And helping to coordinate that effort is Father Romano, the police chaplain, who is also a pastor in Brooklyn. “New York is blessed,” he said. “We've got more clergy than anywhere.”