Triumph and Tragedy
by John Delach
Monday, March 1, 1962 was one of those superb winter days, moderately cold but crisp and clear, the perfect day for a parade. The Daily Mirror’s morning headline commanded:
Go! Go! To See
Their accompanying story began: “The heavens will turn off that chronic drizzle of the past few days for the man who conquered the sky.”
The parade actually honored all seven Mercury astronauts and was conceived following America’s first space flight by Alan Shepheard. But that flight and Gus Grissom’s subsequent success were so brief that the parade was postponed until Glenn made our nation’s first orbital flight. Glenn became an instant hero and his flight was so well-received and applauded by the American public that the parade became known to all as “The Glenn Parade.”
I was as excited as everyone else and decided to see the parade in person. March 1 was also important to me for another reason; I had turned eighteen in February. So, before I made the trip to Manhattan, I first travelled to Jamaica, Queens the location of my local draft board where I registered for the draft and received my Selective Service card. While this card demonstrated that I had fulfilled my civic duty, it also provided proof that I was eighteen and could legally drink in New York.
Armed with my new status I boarded a Manhattan bound Jamaica elevated subway train at the 168 Street Station for the long ride to Lower Broadway. For the most part this was a monotonous ride as the train meandered through lackluster neighborhoods like Richmond Hill and Woodhaven. It did have a moment though. at one point the el lifted up above the surrounding apartment buildings to clear the Long Island RR’s mainline that crosses beneath it. This rise provided a stunning view of Jamaica Bay, Idlewild (Now JFK) Airport and the Rockaways. I stood up on that clear, cold day to take in the view only to notice a plume of smoke rising high above the bay making me wonder what had caused that to happen?
On reaching Broadway I joined the masses that lined sidewalks five and six deep becoming absorbed by a crowd estimated to be as many as four million strong who stood along the route. I didn’t see very much even with my height advantage so I can’t say that I saw John Glenn but I think I did. I didn’t stay very long but I didn’t feel disappointed either. Everyone was so happy and proud to be there that it felt good to be part of it.
None of us standing there knew that the plume I had seen earlier came from the remains of an American Airlines 707 that had crashed earlier in the morning after taking off from Idlewild. American Flight No. 1, non-stop service from New York to Los Angeles, began its takeoff roll at 10:07 AM, about the same time I arrived at the Selective Service Office. The airplane carrying a crew of 8 and 87 passengers climbed to 1,600 feet over Jamaica Bay where the flight crew commenced a left turn. At this point something went terribly wrong with the rudder, the moveable part of the tail. The 707 banked beyond 90 degrees, flipped over onto its back and began a terminal dive toward the bay. One minute and 49 seconds after beginning takeoff, the 707 smashed into the bay upside down at an angle of 73 degrees exploding in the shallow waters killing all on board.
The crash of American Flight No. 1 was the largest single-plane domestic air tragedy up to that time and forced next morning’s newspapers to come to terms with all that had happened on March 1…
The headline on the Daily News read:
IN ONE DAY:
95 Die in Jet; Busman Strike;
Millions Share Glenn Triumph
The Daily Mirror stayed the course with:
The only notation, a box at the bottom right-hand corner of the first page noted:
95 Die Here In
Worst Air Crash
The New York Times went with twin banner headlines separated by a single column story about the Fifth Avenue Coach Company strike. The left side banner headline covered three columns and read:
CITY TURNS OUT FOR GLENN
PARADE IN PAPER BLIZZARD
The right side headline covered four columns and read:
ALL 95 ON JETLINER KILLED IN CRASH
INTO BAY ON TAKE-OFF AT IDLEWILD
PRESIDENT SPURS FEDERAL INQUIRY
Finally, the New York Herald Tribune separated the stories top to bottom of the front page with:
Triumph – The New York Way
TRAGEDY – End of Flight 1
The top of Page 1 began with this overview:
“Man reaches for the stars but he stands upon the earth. And his fallibilities and failings go hand in hand with his capability and achievements. Yesterday this city honored a space hero – even while stunned by a great air disaster. Today it still feels the pride in John Glenn – and it mourns the ninety-five who died at Idlewild.
We may be sure that there will also be other tragedies from the mines below the earth to the skies above it. But we know, too, that man will persevere and prevail and progress, for he knows no other way.”