Newly Revealed Photos Capture Flight 587 Tragedy in Rockaways

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    NEWSLETTERS

    Greg Semendinger
    A picture of Belle Harbor 15 days after the crash.

    "I was really glad I wasn't on the ground."

    Retired NYPD helicopter pilot Greg Semendinger is still shaken by the photos he snapped from the air nearly a decade ago over Belle Harbor, Queens, a normally community in the Rockaways.

    There are more than eighty pictures in all, showing a community on fire and in chaos.  Homes engulfed in flames; airplane parts strewn on the roofs of homes.

    "It was like a volcano," said Semendinger. "To see this right outside your door, down the block, it's scary."

    The date was Nov. 12, 2001-- the day American Airlines flight 587 crashed shortly after takeoff from John F. Kennedy Airport.

    Most of Semendinger's photos have never been seen in public -- until he released them to NBCNewYork.

    "This is history," said Semendinger, 61, as he clicked through the photos on his home computer. "People should see this."

    Semendinger flew with the NYPD's Aviation unit for close to twenty years and always kept a camera at his side.  He also snapped chilling photos of the attack on the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001.

    The inferno captured in Semendinger's photos over Belle Harbor killed 260 on the plane and five people on the ground. Four homes were consumed by flames.  A number of others were damaged. Flight 587 had been bound for the Dominican Republic.

    Federal investigators later concluded pilot error caused the crash, although many still believe terrorism was to blame.

    "It will be etched in my mind forever," said Gus Cholakis of Belle Harbor, who watched his neighbors' homes burn from just across the street.

    NBCNewYork showed Cholakis some of the new Flight 587 photos; his reaction was an emotional one.

    "It was like a nightmare, you know," said the chef who has lived in the same Belle Harbor home for 46 years. "I still think often about how maybe I could have saved someone."

    Belle Harbor gas station owner Tom Bulloch agreed to view the photos as well. His father was nearly killed that day nine years ago when one of Flight 587's engines fell directly on the Bulloch's service station.

    "He was in the office right there," said Bulloch, pointing to one Semendinger photo. "He said it felt like an explosion.  Everything got sucked out of the office and he got knocked to the ground."

    Others in Belle Harbor, however, did not want to re-live the tragedy through Semendinger's photos. They refused when asked to take a look; the pain of this tragedy remains raw nine years later.

    Semendinger understands but insisted the photos needed to be released to document both the losses and the bravery.

    "I think everyone needs to remember what happened," said Bulloch.  "And I know no one will ever forget."