TRAGEDY IN THE CLOUDS
N. Y.Journal American-Wide World photo
—N. Y. Journal American-Wide World photo
Aircraft collision over New York kills 135 and creates two widely separated multiple – alarm emergencies for fire fighters
wide World photo
COLLISION of two airliners, resulting in death to more than 130 persons, the worst tragedy in American aviation, occurred over Staten Island, N. Y., at about 10:30 a. m., December 16. One was Trans World Airlines Flight 266, a Lockheed Super-Constellation, en route from Columbus and Dayton, Ohio, to LaGuardia. The other was a United Air Lines DC-8, Jet Flight 826, nonstop from Chicago to Idlewild. The TWA plane plummeted to the earth at Miller (Army) Field near New Dorp, Staten Island. The crippled jet roared on for another 10 miles, plunging to the ground in the Park Slope section of Brooklyn. As a result, the New York Fire Department was called upon to simultaneously fight a second alarm in Staten Island and the equivalent of seven alarms in Brooklyn.
Staten Island operations
The TWA plane disintegrated in air, and three large sections—two of them afire—fell about a quarter-mile from each other. Fortunately none of them hit buildings, although a blazing wing section with one motor landed near a home. The main section which was afire crashed onto Miller Field. Five persons were in the tail section which did not burn.
Two engine companies, two ladder companies and the chief of the 21st Battalion responded to Box 2047 which was transmitted at 10:34 a. m. Rescue Company 5 was specialcalled by radio at 10:37. The first engine companies on the scene immediately stretched hand lines, but the water streams barely held down the flames from the main section of the plane.
Miller Field’s small crash unit, which is not equipped with turret pipes, rolled in and supplied foam to the firemen. At 10:57 a second alarm was transmitted and another ladder company was special-called to the scene. A military truck equipped with a winch responded, and the winch was used to pull the wreckage apart after firemen had cut through with axes.
A radio station broadcast the need for doctors at the scene and many responded. As a result of the appeal, a tremendous number of off-duty firemen and policemen came to the area, volunteered their services and helped in the operations.
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Three passengers taken from the tail section were rushed by helicopter to the U. S. Public Health Service Hospital, but none survived. In all, 39 passengers and five crew members of the Constellation died. The scattered fires, mostly from gasoline spill, were declared under control at 11:53 a. m., although search and rescue operations continued throughout the day.
Members of Richmond Engine Company 1, one of two volunteer fire companies still in service in New York City, responded and assisted in the operations at Miller Field.
Meanwhile, on the North Shore of Staten Island, two hoods were quick to take advantage of the tragedy. While almost every available policeman was on duty at the crash scene, two gunmen, wearing women’s outer clothing, held up the New Brighton Savings and Loan Association and made off with $11,723.
Two minutes after the TWA Constellation crashed on Staten Island, residents of the Park Slope section of Brooklyn were horrified to see the United jet, ablaze all over, roaring earthward 60 to 90 feet above the roofs of the three and four-story brownstone houses. Disintegrating in the last few hundred feet of its flight, the main section smashed into a church named, ironically, the “Pillar of Fire.” An intact tail section came to rest in the middle of the nearby intersection of Seventh Avenue and Sterling Place. Debris and fire were scattered over the neighborhood, sections of the wings pierced some roofs and fire immediately involved 10 brownstone houses. Where the church, a two-story building with steeple, had stood, there was now only a smoking pit, 25 feet deep and 50 feet across.
Flames leaped three stories high and thick black smoke filled the area. At least 24 autos were damaged as well as a funeral home, barber shop, bakery, garage and several of the 16-family apartment houses. More than 200 persons were made homeless.
Within two minutes after Box 1231 was transmitted at 10:36 a. m., the full first-alarm assignment was at the crash and the battalion chief had radioed back that “all hands” were at work. The second alarm was transmitted at 10:39, the third five minutes later, the fourth at 10:48 and the fifth at 10:50. All the engine and ladder units that would normally respond to a second alarm for Box 174, Manhattan, were called to the Brooklyn crash scene at 11:12 a. m. The latter resulted in the equivalent of seven alarms. A total of approximately 50 pieces of apparatus responded, including those from Manhattan. More than 200 off-duty firemen came to the scene and volunteered their services,
The first job of the firemen, according to Chief of Department George David, was to put out the fire in the plane itself. There was no problem of evacuating the buildings because the occupants had fled and most of them were on the streets by the time the first firemen arrived. A special unit brought chemical foam to the scene for use on the jet fuel , fires, but it was not needed as the water streams contained the fire without difficulty.
While the plane fire was fought, other firemen went to work on the tenements. They raised ladders and advanced lines to the roofs and upper floors where pieces of wreckage had smashed through walls and burned holes in the floors below.
As soon as the fire in the plane was out, rescue crews with stretchers moved in to remove bodies from the wreckage. Getting into the plane did not, in itself, pose any special problem as the impact had split open the fuselage, and some bodies were scattered around outside the plane. However, debris from the demolished church had to be removed and this was time-consuming. Several tottering columns of the church were still standing early in the operations and these wavered whenever a fireman brushed against them. As a safety measure, the firemen knocked them down with 6-foot hooks.
Although the building fires caused by the crash were declared under control shortly before 1 p. m., debris —smoldered far into the night. Approximately 150 firemen remained on the scene through the week-end searching for residents of the area possibly buried under some of the rubble.
While the editors of FIRE ENGINEERING listened to radio reports as the grisly drama unfolded at Staten Island and Brooklyn shortly after the planes collided, the tragedy took on a personal note when it became known that a fellow editor and personal friend, Arthur F. Schuelke, general manager of three Reuben H.
„ Donnelley textile publications was aboard the ill-fated United jet.