[Note: Today marks the 50th anniversary of the day two commercial planes collided over NYC. One of them landed in a field in Staten Island, the other in Park Slope, Brooklyn. I was always taken with this story, as I live in Park Slope. But mostly, it was the photo you see here of the one survivor of that plane crash that really got me. It was a little boy named Stephen Baltz who was flying by himself that day. It’s astonishing that photographers were able to snap this shot of the child lying in a snow bank before help arrived, shielded only by an umbrella held by a passerby. He was the only survivor but sadly, he died about 24 hours later. About three years ago, I began writing a book on the incident to coincide with the 50th anniversary. Unfortunately, I stopped too soon but read on…]
FIRE OVER BROOKLYN
December 16, 1960 was the kind of day New Yorkers pick to stay home from work, avoid the subways and all those out of town holiday tourists. It was cold and damp, the kind of bone-chilling raw day that is not helped one bit by a steady sleet falling from the sky which was exactly what was happening that day. The skies were a dull, depressing white and there was pretty much no pre-Christmas spirit in the air. What’s more, it was Friday and if you weren’t feeling ‘so hot’ to begin with, well, as they say in Brooklyn, forgetaboutit. Monday morning would come soon enough.
That pretty much sums up the way Dorothy Fletcher felt on that wintry day so long ago now. She was in her forties, had lived in Park Slope, Brooklyn since 1948 and was then working for a chemical company in Manhattan. She was living at 143 Berkeley Place on the north side of Park Slope, not far from Flatbush Avenue. Seventh Avenue, the commercial heart of Park Slope, was just around the corner. It was 10:30 in the morning and Dorothy was relaxing, thinking about doing a little last minute Christmas shopping when she heard the noise, the terrible rumbling sound of a plane much too close. Dorothy was civic-minded; she was the chief of the group Brooklyn Volunteers for Civil Defense so she knew a thing or two about disasters and how one should respond.
She looked up from what she was doing and immediately thought, “That plane is in trouble.”
The plane was United Flight 826 and it was a DC-8 jet and, in 1960, it had no peers; it was the fastest and largest commercial airplane in the sky. The flight had originated at Chicago’s O’Hare Airport and was heading to Idlewild Airport in Queens, the airport that of course today is known as JFK. There were 76 passengers and seven crew members; one of the passengers was a young 10-year boy taking his first flight and flying all by himself. The boy’s name was Stephen Baltz and he was in the plane by sheer bad luck. His family lived in Chicago where his father was a vice president for the budding Admiral Television Company. Stephen had been scheduled to leave on a flight two days before with his mother and sister who were now anxiously awaiting his arrival at Idlewild.
Air travel was very different in those days; for one thing, people dressed much more formally of course, and children flying alone were a rarity. Stephen’s father had seen him off in Chicago and told the stewardesses to please care for his son. They did, fawning extra attention on the little boy who made it easy because he was a polite charmer.
Just minutes before Dorothy Fletcher heard the ominous sound in her apartment, Stephen had been enjoying his first airplane ride. “I remember looking out the plane window at the snow covering the city. It looked like a picture out of a fairy book,” he said later. “Then all of a sudden, there was an explosion.”
The DC-8, going much too fast at 500 miles an hour as it approached its final descent to Idlewild, had overtaken a much smaller plane, TWA flight 266, a Super Constellation that had originated in Dayton, Ohio heading for LaGuardia Airport. There were 39 passengers (two of them infants) and five crew members aboard the “Super Connie,” as the planes were nicknamed. With its four propellers and graceful design, it was considered one of the most beautiful planes ever built. On this day, it played the unassuming beauty to the United beast. The TWA Super Connie did nothing wrong this day and in fact had just been given permission to land at LaGuardia.
The United plane was just a year old but, while enroute, the crew had discovered that one of its navigation receiver units was not working. The United crew dutifully reported the problem to its supervisors on the ground but no one thought to tell Air Traffic Control, a critical mistake. The traffic controllers were trained for just such a situation and would have lent added assistance.
Captain David Wollam flying the TWA flight was only 12 seconds into his approach into LaGuardia when he received an urgent message from the Control Tower. “There appears to be jet traffic off your right,” the controller told Wollam.
There was no response.
The controller watched in horror as the points on his radar screen merged over Miller Army Air Field in New Dorp, Staten Island. “I think we have trouble here with a TWA Connie,” he told his co-workers. “He’s not moving or anything. He might have got hit by another airplane.”
The Connie had been hit because, thanks to the non-responsive navigation unit in the United DC-8, that plane was 11 miles away from where it should have been.
Air traffic controllers had a vague idea of what was happening but, up in the skies, Stephen Baltz and the others felt it first hand. With a terrible ferocity, the DC-8’s right wing tore into the passenger section of the “Super Connie.” It scooped a woman out of her seat and sucked her into the deadly sharp blades of one of the DC-8’s powerful engines.
The extremely rare mid-air collision happened very close to a housing development near the Miller Airstrip. The TWA flight was obliterated by the force of the collision and pieces of metal together with the bodies of the poor souls on board fell to earth on the abandoned Miller Airstrip.
The TWA flight miraculously missed falling onto a populated area but that was not to be the case with the United flight. Though mortally wounded – it was now missing its right wing as well as its right engine — the DC-8 remained in the air for another eight miles. It would have been far better had it fallen along with the “Super Connie” because now the DC-8 was hovering like an angel of death over the densely populated borough of Brooklyn, the borough which likes to brag that, if it were a stand-alone city, it would be the fourth largest city in the United States. United Flight 826 was right over the heart of Park Slope as it began to fall once and for all. Captain Robert Sawyer tried desperately to steer the plane toward the large greenery of Prospect Park where no one on the ground would be injured. But the huge plane would not cooperate and instead plunged toward a grade school, St. Augustine’s Academy where over 100 students were spending one of their last school days before Christmas break.
Teacher James Barnes later told reporters that he noticed a student lose all the color in his cheeks. Barnes turned and saw the gigantic plane barely 1,000 feet up and heading directly toward them. He could barely think what to do or say when suddenly the plane banked right and missed the school entirely.
Over on the corner of Sterling Place and Seventh Avenue (a few blocks from Flatbush Avenue), it was – up to this point — a typical winter morning. Sanitation worker Charles Cooper was shoveling snow. Joe Colacano and John Opperisano were selling Christmas trees. Dr. Jacob Crooks was out walking his dog. An unnamed butcher walked to his job. Suddenly, they all heard the ferocious whine of jet engines in dire straits; the men barely had time to comprehend what was happening when United Flight 826 blasted into the five souls who were in the wrong place at exactly the wrong time.
“All of a sudden, the right wing dipped,” said eyewitness Mr. Manza (whose first name has been lost to history), saw what had happened. “It hooked into the corner of the apartment house (at 122 Sterling Place) and the rest of the plane skimmed into the church and the apartment house across the street. All at once, everything was on fire and the fire from the plane in the street was as high as the houses.”
It was estimated the DC-8 was traveling over 200 miles an hour when the right wing blasted into a brownstone, instantly wiping out 100 years of solitude for the building. The jet’s nose bore found an ironic landing place – it obliterated a corner church known as the Pillar of Fire Church. Before long, all that was left was rubble, fire and the burnished name plate of the church that quickly was shrouded in plumes of white smoke. Caught in the disaster and buried right there and then in his bed was the unfortunate Wallace Lewis, the church’s 90-year-old caretaker.
The Gods can be devious and that day, they seemed to almost delight in what was happening because the passenger section of the DC-8 came to rest in the McCaddin Funeral Home. Henry and Pauline McCaddin were in their second-floor kitchen, having coffee and playing with their one-year daughter who was hiding under a table. With unintended understatement, Pauline told her husband “My Goodness, that plane sounds awfully low.”
A second later, the plane hit their building. “The building shook as if it had been hit by a bomb and the room was in flames.”
A next door neighbor Robert Carter, who ran a hairdressing salon on Seventh Avenue, ran into the burning building to help the McCaddins and led them to safety. When they emerged, the three looked up and saw building after building on fire, almost as if the sky were raining flames.
They and others could only watch with horror as the tortured screams of the trapped passengers arose from inside the funeral home which, oddly enough, had turned into a crematorium. “It was the worst sound I ever heard,” one man told a reporter.
Dorothy Fletcher winced as she heard the crash but immediately knew that she’d be needed. She grabbed a leopard print coat and her umbrella and raced outside.
“As I turned on Seventh Avenue and looked down towards St. Johns Place, all that went through my mind was ‘this is a movie set.’ It was amazing to see that plane, most of it over Seventh Avenue, the tail of it on Sterling Place and what was left of the nose on the other side of Sterling Place.”
Brownstones all over the neighborhood was on fire and smoke was everywhere. Sirens were already in the air as a nearby Fire Company raced to the scene. Here and there were presents that had been carried by the passengers and mailbags filled with holiday cards.
Fletcher came upon a policeman and identified herself as a member of the Civil Defense system. “What can I do?” she asked.
The cop pointed to a snow bank where some people were gathering. “Take care of that little boy. He was a passenger.”
Stephen Baltz was alive.
One police officer later speculated that Stephen Baltz survived because he was sitting on the lap of a stewardess who was herself sitting in a jump seat. It sounds unlikely if only because Stephen was 11 years old and hardly a toddler. What’s more likely is that he happened to be sitting in a spot where the plane had a clean break. Some witnesses reported seeing him crawling out of the wreckage; others say he was thrown into a snow bank but, in any case, he was badly burned but alive. He was the only survivor of either plane crash.
A few passersby had gotten to him before Dorothy Fletcher and had rolled him in the snow to put out the flames that had engulfed his body. He also clearly had a broken leg. He was not crying but he was conscious and repeated cried out for his mother and father.
Stephen’s face was so blackened by the fire and explosion that Fletcher couldn’t tell what race he was. Fletcher immediately realized Stephen was in shock. “He was talking to us and his jacket was still smoldering.”
Fletcher reacted instinctively. On top of everything, the weather had remained horrible; it was still sleeting and snowing so she opened her umbrella and put it over Stephen to protect him at least a bit from the elements. The photo of Fletcher, wearing a leopard-print jacket and holding an umbrella over Stephen – the plane crash victim – has become the iconic photograph of that day. In the picture, Stephen’s eyes are wide open and he’s looking at the photographer with a dazed expression. The photo ran on the front pages of both the New York Times and the New York Daily News. It remains a bit ridiculous and yet amazingly endearing to this day.
Fletcher, however, did much more that day. People were watching from windows and she yelled up to them: “Please throw me down some blankets. This child is in shock. We have to get him to a hospital; when he comes out of this, he’ll be in agony.”
Two men, who happened to be firefighters, were watching the scene play out. “Do you guys have a car. We need to get this boy to a hospital.”
They did and the men carried Stephen to their car and placed him lovingly on the back seat. Fletcher knelt next to him. Stephen kept talking.
“Am I going to die?” he asked Fletcher.
“Not if we can help it. We’re taking you to Methodist Hospital.”
“That’s good,” Stephen replied, “because I am a Methodist.”
As the car raced 13 blocks south to the hospital, Fletcher asked about his parents. “My dad is back in Illinois but my mom and sister are waiting for me at the airport. They’ll be worried. We’re going to spend Christmas with my uncle.”
“Does your uncle live in New York City?”
“No, he lives in Yonkers.”
Then, they were at the hospital and the emergency workers took over. “My name is Dorothy,” Fletcher told him as he was wheeled away.
As Stephen and Fletcher had been racing south to “the Methodist,” as the hospital was known to neighborhood residents, Barbara Stull, a 22-year-old nurse, was packed into a car with doctors and other workers heading north to the scene of the crash.
Stull, who had always wanted to be a singer, instead became a nurse and had only graduated from the Methodist nursing school six months before. She was, as they said at the time, a live wire. She was her friends were all nurses and all lived in Park Slope where they had a good, lively social life. At the time, Stull, an attractive brunette, was dating four doctors and spent her nights on Broadway and Trader Vic’s. But most of all, Stull loved being a nurse. “I loved the contact with the nurses, knowing you could do something to make their lives easier.”
On December 16th, Stull was supposed to report for work at midnight but while walking near the hospital, she heard one siren and then more as they lit up the quiet neighborhood. She went by the Methodist emergency room where she heard someone utter the words “plane crash.”
In moments, she was in a doctor’s car with other medial workers racing to the scene to see what they could do. The car sped through red lights until it got to Sterling Place and Stull saw the inconceivable: the tail of a full-sized plane that read “United” was sitting in the middle of Seventh Avenue while building all around were on fire. The workers had no time to think; they set up shop in nearby Grace Church and attended to an ongoing parade of cops and firemen. They never saw a passenger from the plane.
After a few hours, Barbara went home because she was due to come back to the hospital at midnight. Before she left, her supervisor warned her to rest up. The burned boy needed constant care. “You’ll special him tonight,” she told Barbara who knew that that meant she would be one on one with young Stephen all night long.
She went home but confided to her future husband Dr. George Lewnes that she was nervous. “I can’t imagine the kind of care that he’ll need.”
That night, Stull walked up to the glassed-in nursery where Stephen was being kept. A team of doctors were looking in on him, trying to decide on what the next step should be. The head of orthopedics spoke of setting his broken leg but could not because of the burns. The plastic surgeon said that Stephen would need skin grafts while the head of pediatrics spoke of surgery. But first Stephen needed to stabilize. One by one, the doctors left until Barbara and he were alone.
It was 12:30 a.m. and, around the nation, people were pulling for the little boy, praying at he’d survive. Barbara, meanwhile, was alone with him.
She watched his chest rise and fall and listened to his breathing. A chair was there for her but she was so nervous she wound up standing the whole night. On and off, she checked his fluids, his urine, his blood. She wrote in the logbook.
And then, Stephen startled her. “I’d like a television please.”
In those days, televisions were still new and hospitals were not equipped with them in every room as they are now. She thought it an odd request but his voice was strong, like that of any other child.
“I’m sorry Stephen, we don’t have one right now but I’ll try to find you one.”
He looked at her and soon fell off asleep.
In the middle of the night, Stephen’s father arrived from Chicago and he looked in on his son. “He never broke down; he was just calm and quiet and very good to Stephen.”
Barbara learned that he was the vice president of the Admiral Television Corporation and smiled to herself. That was why Stephen had asked for a TV. Now it all made sense.
By 8 a.m., the doctors and other nurses came on duty and Barbara was relieved. Stephen had survived the night and that was a good sign. Plenty of patients never do.
She left the hospital feeling euphoric. Maybe he’d survive after all.