Friday, December 17, 2010

Green-Wood Commemorates Plane Crash Anniversary With Monument

A solemn crowd gathered in the southwest corner of Green-Wood Cemetery Thursday to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the tragic mid-air collision of two commercial flights over New York City on Dec. 16, 1960. The crash, just nine days before Christmas, resulted in the death of 134 people.

United Airlines flight 826 was en route from Chicago to New York’s Idlewild airport (now JFK) when it collided with TWA flight 266, coming from Dayton and Columbus, Ohio. The TWA flight plummeted to Miller Army Field in Staten Island, killing all 44 people on board.

The United plane lumbered along a little further until it crashed in Park Slope at the corner of Sterling Place and Seventh Avenue, killing the 84 people on board and six people on the ground. At the time it was the worst air disaster in U.S. history.

A small plot at Green-Wood holds the unidentified remains of the crash victims, but no monument marked the site until now.

Thursday, Green-Wood unveiled an eight-foot granite monument bearing the names of all 134 victims. Gathered in the freezing cold were relatives of many of those who perished in the accident. They touched the engraved names of their lost loved ones, and for the first time they met others who had lost family members.

Although it’s been half a century, “It’s fresh, it’s still very fresh,” says Jane Flood (pictured below), who lost her brother, Vincent De Paul Flood. “And it doesn’t matter that it was the worst. We don’t need to be in the Guinness Book.”

Her brother was 19 years old at the time and coming was home for Christmas from Ohio, where he was studying to become a priest. “He would have been 69 now.”

Kevin Root was five years old when the crash happened. It took the lives of both his parents, Samuel and Florence Root. “I was home when the news struck. It was such a blur. I don’t really remember specific details. Emotionally I remember it, but visually not so much.”

Root lives in Greenwich. Conn., and hopes to visit the monument often. “It’s the first time I’ve seen all the names together,” he said.

“This spot will be considered hallowed ground,” said Richard Moylan, president of Green-Wood Cemetery. “We will protect it and care for it. Green-Wood will do all it can to perpetuate the memory of what happened on Dec. 16, 1960.” The memorial site will include a grove of Quaking Aspen trees, donated by the New York Restoration program.

No other monument to the accident exists aside from a small plaque in the chapel of New York Methodist Hospital, where the accident’s one brief survivor, 11-year-old Stephen Baltz, was treated before he succumbed to his injuries.

The Baltz family sent along a message to the gathering Thursday, read by Ray Garcia, author of Sterling Place, a book about the crash. “Stephan was 11 years old at the time, and he was terribly burned and broken,” the message read. “But when [his] father first came to his bedside at the hospital, Stephen smiled, and said, ‘Daddy, next time I fly, I want to fly my own plane. I want to be the pilot.’ He was already looking to the future and never gave up hope.”

The accident, and particularly Stephen Baltz, left an indelible mark on the memories of people around the country. Aside from the relatives of victims, people who had distinct memories of that day came from around New York to Green-Wood Thursday.

“I remember it pretty vividly. It was my first experience with such a tragic event,” said Ken Monahan, who was 7 years old at the time. “I remember thinking, ‘Will Santa Claus be able to fly?’ It was kind of selfish and naive, but I also remember thinking that for Stephan Baltz, Santa Claus never came that year, or for the 133 other people that died.”

Monahan’s father, who worked at Kings County Hospital, was an early responder to the scene. In a long white box Monahan carried with him yesterday was one of the seat belts from the plane, which his father had taken from the site. “Why my dad took this, I don’t know. Maybe he wanted a memento to remember the souls of the people who were killed that day.”

Green-Wood president Moylan, who was in the first grade in Holy Family School on Fourth Avenue, remembered hearing the roar of the plane as it passed overhead. “The shadows were seen on the large windows of the school. Sister had us under our desks, fearing a Soviet attack. The sadness on the faces of people that day — mom, dad, people on the street — is something I didn’t really understand at the time, but I’ll never forget it.”

By pure coincidence, Thursday’s ceremony ended at exactly 10:33 a.m., the moment of the crash. “Somebody’s looking down on us,” said Moylan, and the gathering held a moment of silence.

Dreaming of a Brooklyn Christmas in 1945

Emerging from the dark chapter of World War II in 1945, America was more eager than ever to embrace the lightness and frivolity of the holiday season. It’s this moment in time that is captured in Matthew Littman’s Christmas 1945 — The Greatest Celebration in American History, a non-fiction book about the first holiday season after the end of the war. Included in the book is a piece about an essay written by an overseas soldier wishing he could get home in time to spend Christmas 1945 in Brooklyn.

Twenty-year-old Jason Auerbach was an army sergeant and a two-year veteran with 12 months in the infantry in Italy. Awaiting discharge in Camp Crowder, Missouri, he wrote a prize-winning essay for the “My Home Town This Christmas” contest sponsored by the camp. His essay favorably impressed the judges and, upon awarding him first prize, released his prizewinner to the newspapers back home. The New York Herald Tribune printed his essay. The young soldier also miraculously made it home in time for Christmas in Brooklyn.
Here is an excerpt from his story:

Christmas in Brooklyn isn’t like that of a small, mid-western village. It’s not like it physically, but spiritually the same atmosphere lingers through the large and crowded borough as in even the smallest town. It’s not often we have a white holiday, but we sure aren’t disappointed if it’s just another ordinary day.

There’s plenty of enthusiasm in Brooklyn come the first week of December. The kids are looking forward to their 10-day holiday from school and the borough’s workers are dreaming of the gifts they’re going to give and receive.

The department stores make downtown Brooklyn look like something out of a Disney cartoon with their colorful windows and tinseled displays. Gay lights and ornaments are on every floor and there isn’t anywhere you walk that you can’t sense the coming of the great day.

There’s that cold spell that hits us during the pre-holiday weeks that typifies winter, and above all, Christmas. The mad rush and clamor that is Brooklyn still prevails, but now folks are glad to be hurried, for it warms their bodies and makes their skin tingle…