I’ll put on almost any album – even a great one like Abbey Road - as background music. But there are a few for which I’ll always clear an hour to really appreciate. Wilco’s Yankee Hotel Foxtrot is chief among them; Graceland by Paul Simon is in there, too.
There’s only one written piece that works the same way for me, where I’ll set aside some time to take in. It’s called The Day the Boy Fell From the Sky, a Times article from 2002 by Wendell Jamieson. It’s one of my favorites, ever.
I read it once a year on the same date: December 16. Today’s the day.
The article concerns the lone survivor of a mid-air collision on December 16, 1960, and the nurse who cared for him before he died, his lungs too charred to function properly. The boy’s name was Stephen Baltz. The contents of his pockets – 65 cents in coins – are now melded to a memorial plaque at Park Slope’s New York Methodist Hospital, where he spent his final hours.
The hospital is just over half a mile from where his plane, United Airlines Flight 826, crashed into Park Slope at the intersection of Seventh Avenue and Sterling Place. That’s a block from where I now live.
The photos show a much different Park Slope, its ragged, dangerous era underway. I occasionally imagine what that spot must have looked, felt, and smelled like on that snowy day. It’s hard to do.
The crash was the deadliest aviation disaster in history at the time: 135 dead after United Flight 826 collided with TWA Flight 266 over Staten Island. The latter plummeted to an open field, while the United DC-8 fell in the direction of its ultimate target, LaGuardia. It hit the Pillar of Fire Church and a few other buildings, killing six on the ground. There’s no evidence the pilots had control of the aircraft or that they were trying to land it in Prospect Park, as many assumed.
It was the first time a jet plane was involved in an incident with passenger fatalities, and the first time a black box was used to retrieve flight data. Blame fell on the tower dispatchers, even though the collision happened 12 miles away in the holding area.
The Times had plenty of coverage in 2010, when the city marked the event’s 50th anniversary. I remember seeing several news trucks parked at the corner overnight that year, too. But last night, the streets were calm, and I’m curious if the press will give the date more than a passing mention.
Meanwhile, I still hear planes overhead every two minutes or so, coming in for a routine landing at LaGuardia.