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Monday
Feb092009

The Park Slope Plane Crash of 1960

When we think of devastating aviation disasters, Park Slope isn’t necessarily one of the first places that comes to mind. But it should be. In 1960 a corner of the neighborhood became a Hell on Earth, and today this nightmare has been all but forgotten.

December sixteenth was a cold and dreary morning, with light rain and fog following an overnight snowstorm.  On the southwest corner of Seventh Avenue and Sterling Place, two men hawked Christmas trees that they’d set up in front of a small grocery. Across the street was a funeral home with a Chinese laundry in the basement and a deli next door. Further up Sterling was a butcher shop, an Evangelical Church, and parking garages.

At 10:33 AM, over Miller Field in Staten Island, two planes blinded by the fog collided at 5,000 feet. United Airlines Flight 126, 12 miles off course, slammed into the side of TWA Flight 266, splitting it half. The Trans World wreckage crashed to the field below, killing all 84 on board. The United flight, missing an engine and losing altitude, continued on course in an attempt to land at La Guardia.

The Douglas DC-8 only made it as far as the northern end of Park Slope. First to hit was the right wing, which sheared the roof off of the building housing the grocery, raining debris down onto the Christmas trees below. The bulk of the fuselage crashed directly into the ironically named Pillar of Fire Evangelical Church, completely destroying it. Debris and jet fuel set fire to the funeral home and brownstones further up Seventh Avenue. The tail section landed directly in the middle of the intersection, which was littered with debris and bodies. All 44 on board were killed, as well as six on the ground: the men selling Christmas trees, an employee at the butcher shop, a sanitation worker shoveling snow, a man walking his dog, and Wallace Lewis, the church’s 90-year old caretaker. All told, the death toll was 136.

Seventh Ave and Sterling Pl, NW Corner. McCaddin Funeral Home is at center. 

 The view up Sterling Place, towards Sixth Avenue.

NE Corner, Sterling and Seventh. Flatbush Avenue is in the distance. 

A visit to the corner today betrays little of what was, at the time, the worst aviation disaster in history. New apartment houses stand in place of the church and corner buildings, which for many years after the crash remained vacant lots.


   NW Corner, Seventh Avenue and Sterling Place

NE Corner, Sterling and Seventh 


Nothing here commemorates the crash, not even a small plaque. A memorial on this site to those who lost their lives is not only necessary, it’s important. People should know what happened here, and I have a feeling that real estate developers desperate to sell off these empty apartments play no small role in keeping the disaster quiet.


So let’s get a memorial here. The 50-year mark is less than two years away.

For some great video of the disaster’s aftermath, take a look at this newsreel from Smoking Gun (at 0:56 is an amazing image of the demolished Pillar of Fire Church).

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Reader Comments (12)

Holy moly! That newsreel is fascinating. A real find.

February 10, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterBrooks of Sheffield

There is a book called "Sterling Place" Written by Ray Garcia.
there is a web site with excerpts of the story.

www.midair-collision-over-newyork.com

Check it out if you wish.

March 2, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterAnonymous

Old First church has a special flower every Christmas and Easter in memory of Stephen Baltz, the only survivor, who died the next day in Methodist Hospital. This semi-annual memorial is always paid for by Bryan Fletcher, a son of our church, whose mother, Dorothy Fletcher, attended Stephen.

Yours, Pastor Meeter

March 16, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterDaniel Meeter

actually, there is one small but poignant memorial in the chapel at methodist hospital, which features the coins that stephen baltz had in his pocket when he was brought-in.

but you're right.. there SHOULD be something at the intersection. and let's hope that the folks who've moved-into the 2-apartment buildings on the site have never seen 'poltergeist.'

and that newsreel footage is verrrrry impressive.

March 17, 2009 | Unregistered Commentermichael

My great uncle was Wallace E. Lewis. Wallace was the 90yr old caretaker at the Pillar Of Fire church. He perished that morning in December, likely in a ball of flames. May God rest his soul.
Milt
San diego
4/26/09

April 26, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterAnonymous

I always thought there should be a plaque there. That site stood empty so many, many years now with that building there, there definitely should be at least a plaque!

June 16, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterAnonymous

Michael, it's funny you should say that. My sister lived on Sterling Place in 2002. From the time she had moved in, she had nightmares of a plane hitting her apartment. We chalked it up to living in NY in a post-911 world. One day while in an antique shop with our mother, she found a book and photos of the crash. Her apt building could be seen in them. Very creepy!

September 10, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterAnonymous

I remember the day like yesterday.
I had just turned 5 years old an lived on the corner of 6th ave and 4th street.
My older Brother John ( 9 years old at the time ) was home from school that day because he had an appointment at Methodist Hospital to have stitches removed from his forehead from an accident in our Brownstone apartment ...4 weeks earlier.
I was not yet school age, ( I started 1st grade in Sept. 1961 at OUR LADY OF PEACE on Caroll St between 3rd and 4th ave )
The day was cold and dismal as I remember.
I was watching TV in the front room ( 2nd floor 364 4th Street ) of our Brownstone apartment, and John was looking out of the front windows , when the plane came right over our house.
John ran into the rear kitchen to tell my mother, but she told him to shut up after he kept insisting .
I often wonder what if the plane was a few feet lower, I wouldn't be here to tell the story.
On Sept. 11th, 2001, I was a Lieutenant with the FDNY amd one of the few survivors of the collapse of the TWIN TOWERS.
My firehouse Engine Co. # 10 was across the street from the South Tower.
You can " google " Joe Torrillo FDNY " and read the story in the Pittsburg Press or see me on " YOUTUBE "
E-mail: NYFIREJOE@aol.com

November 9, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterAnonymous

my great aunt lived on 6th and Sterling. she was at work on the day the plane crashed. she worked at a departmen store ... either gimbels or Lomans or one of those can't remember. I wasn't born yet. but Please put up a plaque at the very least.

May 12, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterMejisticHorse445

My great Uncle was killed that day. He was on the ground selling Christmas trees. A sad day for my family...and sadness for me for a wonderful family member that I never got to meet.

May 24, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterAnonymous

A film (Mayday New York) about the crash has been in the works for some time. For updates, see:

http://www.prlog.org/10327323-mayday-new-york-takes-flight-as-television-movie.html

or:

http://www.djdonnellyproductions.com/

August 16, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterAnonymous

This is very eery...I had no clue that this had ever taken place and I literally walked off the bus on Seventh Ave and walked down Sterling Place today. I was coming from a doctor's office at NY Methodist Hospital with a lot on my mind and now I am reading this makes me so ever grateful for what I have but also makes me think of the what if's, ands or buts that have happened

December 16, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterStephanie

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