50 Years Later: Remembering “The Park Slope Plane Crash” and Its Dead

12/16/2010 4:04 PM |


Fifty years ago today, Richard J. Moylan was in school in Park Slope when the sky roared and shadows darkened the windows. “Sister had us under the desk, fearing a Soviet attack,” he said. “And then we prayed the rosary.”

But it wasn’t the Russians. It was United Airlines Flight 826, which crashed into Sterling Place at Seventh Avenue that morning, killing six people on the ground, as well as all 77 passengers and 7 crew members. It had collided mid-air with TWA Flight 266 over Staten Island; the TWA plane went down in a field, killing its 39 passengers and five crew. In total, 134 people died; it was, at the time, the deadliest air-disaster in American history. But no marker had ever been erected to acknowledge the tragedy.

Until this morning, when Green-Wood Cemetery officials unveiled a new stone monument, just yards from the burial plot where the disaster’s unidentified remains have been interred for the last five decades.

“There really has never been a fitting commemoration,” Moylan, now the president of Green-Wood Cemetery, said. “Too many things in history have been forgotten.”

Green-Wood itself had almost “forgotten” it housed these remains. Theresa LaBianca, the cemetery’s genealogist, rediscovered them accidentally, as she flipped through old records on index cards. When she saw a plot that had been purchased by United Airlines, it piqued her curiosity. A little research revealed its tragic history; the burial plot had not even had a marker.

That has been corrected with the new eight-foot granite monument. Cemetery and elected officials unveiled it at a ceremony that attracted overflowing crowds to the memorial site, near the cemetery’s frozen-over lake, where geese bickered during prayers. Newly planted Quaking Aspens surround the area. (“This’ll be an amazing site once it’s a little warmer,” Moylan said. “And a little greener.”) During a moment of silence, as Green-Wood’s bells pealed out of earshot, Borough President Marty Markowitz wiped away a tear. (Councilman Vincent Gentile showed up literally moments before the unveiling and popped in for the photos.) The Sanitation Department lent its pipe-band and color guard.

Among the dead on the ground that day was Charles Cooper, a sanitation worker who’d been shoveling snow from crosswalks and bus stops. Cooper was remembered by Sanitation Commissioner John J. Doherty, who mentioned Cooper’s passion for racing pigeons—an old-timey Brooklyn past time. He also mentioned that Cooper’s body was only able to be identified by the peculiar manner in which he knotted his boot laces.

The accident had a single survivor, briefly: 11-year-old Stephen Baltz, who had been on the United flight, and was thrown from the plane upon impact. He died the next day at Park Slope’s Methodist Hospital. But not before his father came to visit him. According to author Ray Garcia, who paused mid-way through his recounting to hold back tears, Baltz smiled at his father and said, “Daddy, next time I fly, I want to fly my own plane.”