At 10:30am on December 16, 1960, the 1700 students of St. Augustine’s School at the corner of Sterling Place and Sixth Avenue in Park Slope were in class, sheltered from the cold sleet dripping down the windows. Minutes later, they looked out those windows and saw a damaged jet descend down Sterling Place, wings clipping the tops of nearby buildings, before crashing into the intersection at Seventh Avenue.
The “Park Slope plane crash,” as it came to be called, was the deadliest aviation accident in U.S. history at the time. United Airlines flight 826 originated in Chicago and was bound for Idlewild Airport, now known as JFK. Trans World Airlines (TWA) flight 266 was en route from Columbus, Ohio, to LaGuardia Airport. The planes collided in the skies over Miller Field on Staten Island. The TWA plane, an older, propeller-driver Lockheed Super Constellation, broke apart and rained down on Miller Field and the surrounding neighborhoods of New Dorp and Midland Beach. The United plane, a year-old Douglas DC-8 jet, stayed airborne for 11 miles before smashing into the heart of Park Slope.
The crash was caused by a miscalculation by the United pilot. As he approached the New York Harbor, air traffic controllers sent him toward a navigational point near South Amboy, New Jersey, to enter a holding pattern and await clearance to land. Just before the collision, the pilot reported that he was approaching the navigational point--but his jet was already eleven miles past it. One of the jet’s navigational radios was not working, which may have contributed to the miscalculation.
All 44 people on board TWA flight 266 died in the crash, but no one on the ground in Staten Island was injured. Damage to buildings was minimal. Park Slope was not as lucky. Six people on the ground, including two sidewalk Christmas tree salesmen, a 90-year-old church caretaker, and a butcher shop employee were killed. Twelve buildings were damaged or destroyed. Firefighters worked through the day to control blazes.
There was one survivor of the crash: eleven-year-old Stephen Baltz of Wilmette, Illinois. Stephen, whose mother and sister had flown out two days earlier, was on his way to spend Christmas with family in Yonkers. He landed in a snowbank, and a photo of him, face blackened with soot, sheltered by an umbrella and surrounded by concerned residents, was on the front page of afternoon newspapers that day. New Yorkers of all faiths latched onto his survival as a miracle. Stephen Baltz died at Methodist Hospital the following morning. He described the crash before he passed away, saying, “It looked like a picture out of a fairy book. Then all of a sudden there was an explosion. The plane started to fall and people started to scream. I held onto my seat and then the plane crashed.”
Footage from the scene in Park Slope was broadcast on television within hours of the crash, marking a shift in how the nation, accustomed to newspaper and radio coverage, experienced tragic news events.
After the crash, President John F. Kennedy convened a task force on air traffic control, and new regulations were enacted to prevent mid-air collisions. Today, scars of the crash can still be seen in masonry repairs at the intersection of Sterling Place and Seventh Avenue, though there is no memorial in to the crash in Park Slope. In 2010, a memorial was erected in nearby Greenwood Cemetery, on a plot that holds unidentified, fragmentary human remains from the crash. There’s also a memorial plaque inside New York Methodist Hospital, where Stephen Baltz died.
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