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For rescuers, scars - mental and physical - remain after Avianca crash

Portrait of Dr. Scott Coyne and 1st Asst.

Portrait of Dr. Scott Coyne and 1st Asst. Fire Chief Anthony DeCarlo of the Oyster Bay Fire Co. 1, shown here at the site of the Avianca Airlines crash in Oyster Bay. Both men were among the first on scene to aid victims that night. (January 20, 2010) Credit: Newsday/Newsday Photo / Thomas A. Ferrara

Anthony DeCarolis drove up Tennis Court Road in Cove Neck, stepped out at the crest and looked north to a stand of trees shorter than others in the surrounding woods.

"You can still see the path through the trees" that Avianca Flight 52 carved on Jan. 25, 1990, said DeCarolis, first assistant chief of Oyster Bay Fire Company 1 and one of the first to respond that night.

At the top of the slope on the south side of the road where the airliner came to rest, Tony and Maryanne Gassella displayed two buckets filled with cockpit switches and other fragments of the Boeing 707 that the family has found since buying the property two years ago.

After two decades, scars left by the crash of Flight 52, which killed 73 of the 158 aboard, remain visible in the Gold Coast village. And memories of the first crash of a commercial airliner in Nassau or Suffolk counties remain vivid for those who still live in the neighborhood or rushed to it to render aid.

"It still comes up in conversation," said Mayor Thomas Zoller, one of the first on the scene. "There's still a sadness."

He said the one good thing to come from the accident is improvements in air safety.

As strange as it still seems, the Colombian jet ran out of fuel on approach to Kennedy Airport. The pilots never formally declared a "fuel emergency" - two words that would have cleared other traffic for immediate landing.

Bad weather forced the flight from Bogota to circle for more than 77 minutes. In the last 45 minutes of their lives, the pilots repeatedly warned controllers that they were running low on fuel and even aborted a landing attempt at Kennedy.

That's when they circled back over the North Shore.

The scene on the ground after the 9:34 p.m. crash was unforgettable: As fog hung in the trees on an unseasonably warm night, the jet's tail lay across the narrow road. The midsection tilted up the steep slope to the south. The nose came to rest atop the hill, where it demolished part of a deck only a few feet from the bathroom where a resident was taking a shower in the house now owned by the Gassellas.

"The house shook, and pottery on the shelves and mantle crashed on the floor," recalled Dr. Bruce Rebold, who lived less than a mile away.

Retired attorney Stephen Ullman, who lives near the site, remembers that when he went to the scene, "it was quiet. There was no smell of fuel."

Dr. Scott Coyne, of Lloyd Harbor, was the first physician to arrive and treat the injured and pronounce others dead. Because of a flood of emergency vehicles, the village's roads quickly became impassable. "We weren't able to transport the first patient for over a half-hour," Coyne said.

Nassau Police Insp. Kevin Canavan, then a helicopter pilot grounded by the bad weather, helped solve the problem as the weather cleared by turning the tennis court on the property of John McEnroe Sr., father of the tennis star, into a helipad.

DeCarolis, who arrived on the first ambulance after hearing the alarm for "aircraft down," has never forgotten what he encountered on Tennis Court Road.

"We saw the tail of the aircraft in the middle of the road," he said. "We were really impressed with how massive it was. It was surreal."


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