It Rained Debris: Remembering 55 Years Ago

I wrote this article five years ago. Today is the 55th anniversary of this plane crash. Time has not dulled the memory of that day

I was on my way to class at my high school, shortly after 10 AM. It was a cold, nasty NYC day and was snowing lightly.

I was at Clawson St. and New Dorp Lane waiting to cross and looking up at the gray sky. I saw a bright flash and a few minutes later the sky was raining debris and bodies. There was a loud screeching noise and a thunderous explosion. A lady from one of the houses saw me frozen by the tree on her front lawn and pulled me into her house. She was frantically calling for help. There were sirens everywhere.

For a about an hour I sat in this lady’s kitchen, drinking hot cocoa she had made me, listening to the radio and the sirens that went on forever. The debris had stopped falling and we went outside and there was an icy light rain. There was stuff everywhere, plane parts, clothing. I didn’t look too close.

The lady asked if she could call my parents to come and get me but I knew no one was home. I was going to go to class but since my teachers were already used to my absences, I decided to walk towards all the sirens. I headed towards Miller Field, which was a tiny air field then part of the active Army base at Ft. Wadsworth and were all the crash activity was. It was amazingly easy to get near. I suppose the police were really stretched thin. The Intersection of New Dorp Lane and Hylan Bl. was blocked off but it wasn’t hard to cut through side streets and yards to get close.

What I saw will stick in my mind forever, as it did last night, on the 50th anniversary of the terrible plane collision over Staten Island that took the lives of 134 people. The second plane crashed in a densely populated section of Park Slope, Brooklyn at 7th Ave, and Sterling St that killed 6 people on the ground, destroyed a church and 10 other buildings, heavily damaging several others. The church was the Pillar of Fire. The fires burned for three days.

There was one survivor at the Brooklyn site, an 11 year old boy, Stephen Lambert Baltz. He was coming from Chicago to visit his mother and sister for the holidays. He died the next day. He would be 60 now.

There are no markers or memorials at either crash site. The Park Slope neighborhood has been rebuilt. There is an apartment building where the church was. At Miller Field, which is now part of the Gateway National Recreation Park, most of thee original buildings and hangers, where the bodies and some of the plane parts were taken, are gone. There is a new high school at the end of the field that replaced the school where I was headed that day but no markers or reminders of that horrendous scene.

As I walked away and back towards home, I started noticing the debris, something I hadn’t done in my curiosity to get to the site. There were packages and boxes mixed in with unidentifiable plane parts. I don’t remember seeing any bodies other than the ones I had seen at Miller Field. It was dark when I got home and I remember how warm the house felt and how cold and hungry I was. My grandmother had dinner started but I grabbed a cookie and some milk anyway because my stomach was in a knot. It was easy to do because my grand mother was very hard of hearing and most of the time didn’t care much for what I did. Usually, no one ever asked me about my day, except that night my Aunt, who  worked in downtown Brooklyn, mentioned the chaos and how it made her miss her usual ferry. I said that I knew about it and that was when my Dad asked if I was OK. Not if I had seen anything, but just if I was OK. I said I was but that I was tired because I walked home, there was no bus and it was faster. Dad looked at me and said, “three miles”. I’m not sure if it was a statement or just rhetorical question, that was Dad’s way. I went up to my room and did some reading, listening to the radio, WABC, for awhile. I can’t remember if I slept. I know I was warm but still felt the cold.

On my way to school the next day, I passed a Catholic Church, Our Lady Queen of Peace. I was raised Jewish and by 13 I was pretty much agnostic, but my grandmother was Catholic. There were lots of people inside praying. I lit a candle, dropped a dime in the collection box and said the Sh’ma.  

It’s 50 years and I have seen far worse since then in my line of work but that day, today, was yesterday, forever. Blessed Be.