Air Disaster 1960

by

10/04/2008

Park Slope, Brooklyn (primarily) 11215

Neighborhood: Brooklyn, Park Slope

Numerous fissures and cracks can be observed on many buildings along the intersection of Seventh Avenue and Sterling Place, in the Park Slope section of Brooklyn. This quiet, upscale neighborhood, less than a half-mile north of Prospect Park, goes about its daily business with little notice for defects in a city so rife with fissures, cracks, potholes, etc., all symptomatic of an urban environment; like the scars on a person’s flesh, these bear silent witness to the ups and downs of life. But, in this case, what can be observed in Sterling Place are indeed SCARS that are mementos of an event that occurred there on the morning of December 16, 1960: this nation’s worst air disaster, at the time.

In 1960, Sterling Place was a crumbling, neglected neighborhood. It was one of the first Brooklyn regions to see its residents disappear on the wave of aspirations to suburbia. Places like Levittown were the “neighborhoods of the future” and everyday it seemed that carloads of people were driving towards that future. Sterling Place was hardly noticed even by Brooklyn residents who, when they passed through it at all, were on their way to Prospect Park (itself a “poor man’s version” of Central Park).

That fateful morning nearly 47 years ago was windy and snowy; an ice-laden darkness of clouds and mist cloaked the skies and pavement. In Sterling Place, two men were selling Christmas trees near the Pillar of Fire Church (the irony would soon reveal itself) while another man shoveled snow; the church’s 90-year old caretaker was asleep inside. Across the street at St. Augustine’s Academy, class was in session while a man walked his dog pass the McCaddin Funeral.

No one had given, or had reason to give, attention to the fact that two airplanes were in the skies above: A TWA Constellation which had taken off from Columbus Airport in Ohio and a United Airlines DC-8 which had taken-off from Chicago’s O’Hare Airport, both bound for Idlewild (now JFK) International Airport. As the planes approached New York City, visibility had dropped to zero and the planes were forced to fly on instrument navigation. Everything appeared to be proceeding normally, except for an instrument problem that the DC-8 had reported to United Airlines but failed to report to Air Traffic Control.

Now within New York City airspace, the two planes assumed their respective holding patterns (or “victors”): the Constellation (or “Connie”) in the lower Linden Position, from a designated point in Linden, New Jersey; the DC-8 in the higher Preston Position, from a designated point in Preston, New Jersey. (These positions are still used today and many flights approach La Guardia or JFK from a northerly or southerly position over Staten Island to their eventual landing).

For reasons that are still a mystery, the DC-8 over-flew its Preston Position and, at a speed of over 500 mph, descended into the lower Linden Position putting it in the path of the slower-moving Constellation. Air Traffic Control observed two blips merge on their radar as the DC-8’s right wing tore through the Connie’s passenger section, ripping the plane into three pieces that plummeted to the ground in Miller Field (an abandoned military base) on Staten Island.

The critically damaged DC-8 struggled on for 8 more miles (eerily, almost on course for a normal landing) over the Narrows and over Prospect Park toward Sterling Place. Witnesses reported that the plane looked as if it were attempting an emergency landing in the Park, but experts believed that the pilots had lost all control of the plane since the collision. At a speed of about 200 mph, the doomed DC-8 barely cleared St. Augustine’s Academy, its right wing then clipping a house that sent the plane careening to the left and into the Pillar of Fire church where another section of the main cabin broke off and was hurled through the McCaddin Funeral Home.

The neighborhood was an inferno of horrors as flames and smoke, debris and dead bodies, were tossed and strewn throughout Sterling Place (among the dead, the two men selling Christmas trees, the man shoveling snow, the man walking his dog and the elderly caretaker). In total, 135 were killed…(airliners in those days not as large as today’s normally crowded configurations). This crumbled neighborhood was now truly crumbled and appeared dead; or so it was thought.

Citizen groups worked endlessly to rebuild Sterling Place and, with help from (and concessions to) corporations, the once depressed neighborhood wasn’t just famous for a disaster but recognized for its revitalization as a thriving community: now one of the most exclusive areas in Brooklyn, it was certainly a Phoenix rising out of the ashes.

Nonetheless, in spite of all of this, an 11-year old boy by the name of Stephen Baltz shouldn’t be forgotten: a passenger on-board the DC-8 and briefly the lone survivor. He remained conscious and displayed a courage and charm that won the hearts of all that met him; newspapers across America carried news about this exceptional boy. In spite of every effort to save him, he died peacefully at 1 o’clock the next afternoon. One of the last things Stephen remembered before the collision was how beautiful New York City looked covered in snow: “It looked like a picture out of a fairy tale book.”

Michael J. Toro is a jazz and classical pianist out of love who works in insurance underwriting out of necessity. He also blogs at The Electric Egg Cream.

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