Thoughts & Views: Once there was a ‘debris field’ in N.Y.


As the mystery and media feeding frenzy over Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 continue, I have been thinking about another aircraft disaster, this one closer to home and a long time ago.

When I was with the N.Y. Daily News, I wrote about it for a New York City history series the newspaper was running. If you’re interested in that article, you can find it online; the headline is, “Red Snow: The Brooklyn Air Crash, 1960.”

At the risk of plagiarizing myself, I’m going to write about it here, because it affected me deeply.

That’s because I grew up in Down Neck, Newark, directly under the flight path to nearby Newark Airport, and back in those days air crashes were more common, so I felt that what happened easily could have happened in my neighborhood.

It was the morning of Dec. 16, 1960. A United Airlines DC-8, Flight 826 out of Chicago, was nearing its destination, New York’s Idlewild (now JFK) Airport. TWA Flight 266, a Super Constellation, had traveled from Ohio and was heading for LaGuardia.

At 10:33 a.m., they collided over Staten Island.

The TWA plane spiralled, nose up, from the sky into Miller Army Air Field on the eastern shore of Staten Island. All 39 people on board were killed. The United plane crashed into densely populated Park Slope, Brooklyn, narrowly missing a school. Of the 83 passengers and crew, there was one survivor, an 11-yearold boy who died 27 hours later. Six people on the ground also were killed.

That the death toll on the street in Brooklyn wasn’t higher was something of a miracle.

The crash site was Sterling Place between Sixth and Seventh Aves., a block densely packed with multi-family brownstones. Ten homes, a church and three businesses were ablaze. Responding to the scene were 2,500 police, firefighters and volunteers.

At the time, this was the deadliest commercial air disaster in U.S. history.

It remained in my memory for years, and then faded. Then, several decades later, it dramatically resurfaced.

I had just moved into a new apartment and was exploring the neighborhood. Around the corner, there was a vacant lot, an uncommon sight in that area. I asked someone about it. “That’s where the plane crashed,” I was told.

It turned out that I was now living half a block from the site of the 1960 crash that had so affected me when I was young.

On the corner was a small grocery owned by an elderly couple, who I figured must have been there that terrible day. I asked the woman about it and she recounted the experience. She told of hearing a roaring noise, which she thought might be a tractor-trailer truck, though that wasn’t likely on the narrow street.

She looked out the shop window, and what she saw going by was a plane, at eye level.

There had been speculation that the United pilot was been trying to reach the open fields of Prospect Park, but aviation experts did not believe he could have had any control over the aircraft after the collision.

I think he might have.

The park is only two blocks and on a direct line from the impact site.

And a teacher at St. Augustine High School, on Sterling Place between Fifth and Sixth Aves., testified that when the plane came down the street, its wings were perpendicular to the ground. And it came down the center of the street. A few yards to the side, and it would have taken out a dozen more buildings, including the school.

Was the plane’s position pure luck?

I like to believe it was the pilot’s doing.

Thank you, Capt. Robert H. Sawyer.

–Karen Zautyk

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