Looking Back at an Aviation Disaster that Tore Through Dominican Immigrant Families

flight587

The memorial to flight 587. (Photo: priskiller/flickr)

Saturday, November 12, 2011 marks the tenth anniversary of the crash of American Airlines Flight 587.  The second most deadly aviation disaster in U.S. history claimed 265 lives, the majority of them Dominicans en route from New York’s Kennedy Airport to the Dominican Republic.  The following article by Annie Correal was originally published in Spanish by El Diario/La Prensa.  For more visit El Diario’s multimedia special on the crash of Flight 587 .

NEW YORK—Five years after they lost their father on American Airlines Flight 587, Patrisel and Josmel LaFontaine faced another crisis. The teenagers’ mother had died after a botched plastic surgery in Santo Domingo, leaving them at the mercy of their mother’s family, which immediately stepped in. But not everyone was there to help – some relatives were after the Flight 587 compensation money.

“It was a hot mess,” says Patrisel, who is now 22 and living with her 19-year-old brother in the Bronx. “A few people got involved. They tried to bribe [a family friend] to give them my mom’s bank account information. They asked us personally for our mother’s pin numbers.”

Flight 587 was bound for the Dominican Republic when it crashed on November 12, 2001 in Belle Harbor, Queens — just minutes after taking off from John F. Kennedy Airport. In addition to five people on the ground who were killed in Belle Harbor, all 260 people on board the flight perished.

Listen to Annie Correal talk about the Flight 587 anniversary on today’s Brian Lehrer Show on WNYC.

For the LaFontaine family and dozens of others, the crash of Flight 587 meant the loss of a loved on — and in some cases several — but it also meant an end to peace in the family, as relatives waged long battles over who would get the settlement awarded by American Airlines and the aircraft manufacturer, Airbus Industry.

Under the law applied to all of the victims on board — general maritime law — compensation money was determined based on a victim’s earnings and how many people depended on them, and it went to the victim’s spouse and children. If the person was unmarried and childless, it passed to their parents. In other words, siblings, girlfriends, boyfriends and extended family were not entitled to any settlement money—and in large Dominican families this tended to create serious issues.

“Compensation created a lot of problems,” said Belkis Lora, who assisted a large number of victims’ families. “Instead of becoming more united after the crash, many families were torn apart.”

Lawyers interviewed for this piece would not reveal how much families received in compensation. But Lora said that the average settlement was around $1 million dollars. “As far as I know, there was not a huge range,” she recalled, “There was a balance.”

Lora is a thin woman in her early forties who lives in Ozone Park, Queens and works for Jet Blue at JFK. She lost her only brother José Francisco Lora when the flight went down and has since dedicated all her free time to advocating for families whose relatives died on Flight 587 – especially poor, non-English speaking families in New York and the Dominican Republic. She estimates she has met 200 of these families and now presides over the Committee in Memory of Flight 587.

While most families received similar pay-outs, Lora noted that poor families were at a disadvantage when it came to compensation—the poorer the family, the more quickly they tended to settle their cases, often settling for smaller amounts than they deserved. “The people who weren’t so needy could wait longer – and get a little more,” said Lora.

While several families declined to be interviewed, Lora and other sources in New York’s Dominican community recalled around 20 cases in which compensation caused a family rift. The most common problem encountered was extended families — especially siblings — fighting over money they weren’t legally entitled to, as happened in the LaFontaine family.

Romantic relationships also created problems. In one case, in which the names were withheld, a man had been separated from his wife for years and was living with a new partner, but the wife received the compensation money when he died in the crash—instead of his current partner. In another case, a victim’s compensation money went to a spouse that they had married for a green card—over the protests of the victim’s family.

The laws governing compensation also affected children.  In several cases, children had been living with different parents and had to file separate claims for their parent’s compensation, creating disputes. In one case, a crash victim had been raising his wife’s children, but because they were not legally his children, they received nothing when he was killed in the plane crash.

Ironically, many families struggled against poverty while they waited for settlements approaching one million dollars. After José LaFontaine died on Flight 587, the widow of the beloved music producer, Patria, had to depend on food stamps and welfare to support her children. In 2004, her lawyer reached a settlement with American Airlines and Airbus for an undisclosed amount, which was divided between the widow and his children.

When Patria suffered an embolism while getting a tummy tuck, fell into a coma, and died a year later, her siblings felt entitled to the compensation funds.  “Nobody knew where it was, it was scattered between all kinds of bank accounts,” Patrisel recalled. “To this day I don’t know how much there was.”

Josmel, who was 14 at the time, recalls his relatives fighting over what was left behind. “They even came and took blankets, curtains, pots and pans and decorations,” he said, “It was like, ‘We’re family, we can take whatever.’”

Today the LaFontaine children share the house in Parkchester where they were raised and where their father José once recorded albums in the basement. Patrisel is now 22 and a full-time student at John Jay College and she works at a cell phone store in Manhattan. Josmel is a freshman at Hunter College.

The two of them can go to college thanks to a scholarship created for the children of Flight 587 victims—and they are able to pay rent thanks to the compensation money their family received after their father’s death, which their mother had put in a trust fund. And yet the bitter struggle over compensation money that tore through their family after their parents’ deaths has left them virtually alone.

“It was damage to the family — some people came out of left field,” said Patrisel recently.

“That was our family,” added her brother, Josmel, “We didn’t expect them to do that to us.”

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