Brooklyn Fires, December, 1960
by John Delach
Disasters sometimes seem to have an awful habit of happening in a series. Air crashes coming in threes is a popular belief. Legend, perhaps, but strange as it seems, multiple events occur far too often to be coincidental. The New York City Fire Department (FDNY) went through such a sequence, two unprecedented catastrophes and two other large fires in an eight-day period in December of 1960.
It was a rotten month weather-wise described in the NY Times as, “…numbing cold and roadways made virtually impassable by snow and ice.” The first and the worst of the disasters happened on just such a day, December 16th. The weather began as snow before turning into light rain and fog. United Airlines Flight 826, a DC-8 out of Chicago on approach to Idlewild (now JFK) overran its designated holding pattern over South Amboy, NJ striking a TWA Constellation occupying the same holding area. The Connie, Flight 266 originated in Dayton, Ohio destined for LaGuardia via Columbus. One of the DC-8’s four jets engines was ripped off as it struck the Connie from behind crashing into its triple tail and fuselage tearing them apart and forcing the airplane into an uncontrolled dive. Derbies and at least one poor soul trailed the falling flight that smashed into a corner of Miller Field, a small airbase on Staten Island killing all 39 passengers and the crew of five.
There was no evidence that the United crew retained control of their mortally damaged jet which managed to stay in the air for nine more miles as it descended over Brooklyn where it violently came down at the intersection of Seventh Avenue and Sterling Place in the heart of Park Slope setting ablaze the Pillar of Fire Church, ten brownstones, the McCaddin Funeral Home, a Chinese laundry and a delicatessen. Six people on the ground were killed, the church’s caretaker, two men selling Christmas tress, a sanitation worker shoveling snow, a store keeper and a man walking his dog. All of the 77 passengers and seven crewmembers died including 11-year-old, Stephen Blitz, who was thrown onto a snow bank surviving the impact. He succumbed to his burns and injuries the next day. FDNY units from every borough except The Bronx responded to the Park Slope Plane Crash which claimed a total of 134 lives and would remain the deadliest U.S. commercial aviation disaster until 1969.
Three days later, on Dec.19, a forklift operator moving a metal trash bin on the hanger deck of the USS Constellation under construction in the Brooklyn Navy Yard shifted a steel plate that ruptured a diesel fuel line. Once the leaking oil came into contact with “hot work” being performed on lower decks, the insides of the aircraft carrier were transformed into an inferno that took 350 firefighters 17 hours to conquer this ten-alarm blaze. Most of the nearly 4,000 shipyard workers on board managed to escape using two main gangways connected to the aircraft carrier. Others escaped in more dramatic fashion. Several shed their shoes and heavy clothing and jumped into the East River where they were rescued by tugs that raced to the shipyard.
A crane operator lifted a thirty-foot narrow gangway to workers stuck on deck cutoff from the gangways. He began lifting them off of the flight deck a few at a time. As firefighters made their way through the smoke, darkness and oven like heat to reach men trapped below, this gangway became their vital escape route. When survivors and victims were brought up on deck, an FDNY officer would signal to the operator whether the next lift was for the living or the dead; thumbs up if alive, thumbs down if dead.
Once the fires were extinguished and the searches completed, 49 dead workers had been carried off the Constellation and one other, Paul L. Bua made it 50 when he died on Dec. 29th from injuries sustained in the fire. Three hundred and thirty workers and firefighters were injured in the mazes of construction scaffolding blinded by darkness and smoke.
While the worst was over, fire crews had to contend with two additional major fires on Dec. 23. The first began in the early morning hours of that cold day when units from Brooklyn, Manhattan and Queens responded to an eight-alarm fire at two lumber yards in Williamsburg, cheek by jowl with the Navy Yard. The fire raged across properties belonging to the Bridge Lumber Company and the Driggs Plywood Corporation beginning at five A.M. that forced the evacuation of the convent of Our Lady of Mount Carmel Roman Catholic Church and closures to the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway disrupting morning rush-hour traffic.
The day ended with a final conflagration, a four-alarm fire in a gas station at the junction of Coney Island Avenue and Avenue L that began at 6:50 P.M. This final act destroyed the station and ten cars in the adjacent European Motor Cars building.
The one silver lining in this tale of destruction is that not one FDNY firefighter’s life was lost in any of these blazes.