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For N.Y. Rabbi, Latest Tragedy Strikes Much Closer to Home

November 14, 2001
See Original Daily Bulletin From This Date

It’s the sort of expertise that Rabbi Allan Blaine would rather be without.

But it quickly explained the horrible sound he’d just heard.

“After Sept. 11, I know what a purple plume of smoke is — burning jet fuel,” said Blaine, head of the local Conservative community of Temple Beth-El in Belle Harbor. “I knew a jet had crashed.”

For Blaine, Monday’s tragedy of American Airlines Flight 587 was a much closer call than the suicide airstrikes that brought down the World Trade Center.

On Sept. 11, while local residents looked out over Jamaica Bay and saw the twin towers crumble and burn in the distance, Blaine was in the shul he has led for 33 years, working the phones, checking on his congregants.

On Monday, they may have been looking for him.

When the plane crashed, Blaine was driving around the quiet beach community. He had just dropped off a tie at the dry cleaners — for Shabbat, he said — and suddenly felt inspired to grab a sesame bagel, light cream cheese.

“And you knew I’d bought bagels yesterday,” his wife, Suzanne, said later that night, sitting with her husband in their living room. “Why would you do that?”

But if he hadn’t stopped for a bagel — and been delayed by a small line — he might have been on the street where the plane crashed, the rabbi said, “I probably would have been right under it. For some reason, I was spared.”

As it was, the airliner crashed nose-down into a home, plowing into the ground, killing at least four residents, and sparking an inferno that ravaged 12 homes.

In addition, a reported 260 people aboard the plane are believed to have died.

One of them was an Israeli businessman. Ilan Wasserman’s Israeli relatives contacted the Foreign Ministry after learning that Wasserman’s wife had taken him to JFK Airport for the flight to the Dominican Republic. Wasserman had been living in Queens for 20 years.

Outside of Wasserman, no Jewish deaths have been reported, but 10 to 12 Jewish families live on the street where the plane crashed, Blaine said, half a dozen of which belong to his synagogue.

One Jewish home was destroyed, and two were damaged, and the entire block was evacuated.

After learning the scope of devastation, Blaine said, “I could hardly contain myself emotionally.”

“It was too reminiscent of what you saw on television Sept. 11 — that thick, acrid smoke — just on a smaller scale.”

“And for it to happen in my own neighborhood, three blocks from my synagogue,” he said.

Despite official reports that it was an accident, Blaine said, “I don’t know if it was mechanical failure or terrorism, but it’s an uncanny coincidence that this should happen on Veterans Day.”

Blaine immediately agreed to a police request that Temple Beth-El’s red-brick community center be offered as a possible triage center.

But there were no survivors, no need for triage. The police instead took advantage of the community center’s parking lot and restroom facilities.

Belle Harbor itself is now twice-bitten.

The tight-knit neighborhood of Jews, Irish, Italians and Germans was already nursing the emotional wounds caused by the Sept. 11 attacks.

Situated on a sandy peninsula — spanning “four blocks from beach to bay,” Blaine said — the neighborhood is marked by mostly colonial-style homes, virtually all of them now festooned with American flags.

Many firefighters, police officers and stock brokers live in the area.

Some 100 people in the community perished in the events of Sept. 11; one parish, St. Francis DeSales, lost 20 congregants alone, leaving 15 children with only one parent.

One local Jewish man was killed at the World Trade Center.

Funerals and memorial services continue to be held.

Blaine’s congregation of 350 families suffered no direct loss of life, though two or three relatives of congregants were killed.

Nevertheless, the congregation recently dedicated inside the synagogue a bronze memorial to all victims “to mourn their lives until the end of our days.” “May their interrupted lives be a blessing, granting them everlasting immortality,” the memorial says.

The neighborhood — said by Blaine to be 40 percent Jewish — also boasts an Orthodox and a Reform congregation.

Despite the devastation, some residents said this one could have been much worse.

If the jet hadn’t released most of its fuel over Jamaica Bay, the entire area could have gone up in flames. In addition, the plane came in vertically, rather than plowing in horizontally.

Neighbors vowed Monday to cook, shelter, rebuild — anything to help those most affected by the crash.

The rabbi’s wife believes the community will weather this tragedy, too.

“Ah, we’re tough,” said Suzanne Blaine.

The congregation had scheduled a prayer service and counseling for the community Tuesday night.

“We’ll continue to pull together — Jews and non-Jews — and we’ll be there for each other,” she said. “There’s no question this is frightening, though, because you can’t take two hits like this without it affecting you somehow.”

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