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The day death came from the sky

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Fifty years have passed since United Airlines Flight 826 crashed into Seventh Avenue and Sterling Place, but Vito Fiumefreddo still can’t get the ghastly smell of death out of his head.

Today, there’s no grand memorial at the site of the crash, but Fiumefreddo and those who were in the neighborhood on frigid Dec. 16, 1960 will never forget its horror — at the time, the worst aviation disaster in American history.

A tranquil blanket of snow covered Park Slope that morning, but in the sky nine miles away, there was turmoil.

A United Airlines DC-8 and a TWA Constellation were desperately fighting dense cloud cover to no avail — the planes collided at 10:33 am over a military airfield in Staten Island.

The pilot of the wounded United flight tried to keep his plane aloft, but he kept losing altitude, clipping 126 Sterling Pl. before slamming into 123 Sterling Pl. — ironically home to the Pillar of Fire Church.

On Seventh Street and Eighth Avenue — about 10 blocks away — then-17-years-old Fiumefreddo, heard a noise that sounded like a bomb.

“I ran towards it to see what it was all about,” he recalled. “I climbed up on a mound of snow and I saw. The stench was horrible. You could smell the burning flesh.”

All 130 passengers were killed — and six people on the ground: Wallace E. Lewis, the caretaker at the church; Joseph Colacano and John Opperisano, Christmas tree salesmen; Charles J. Cooper, a Sanitation worker; a butcher shop employee; and Dr. Jacob Crooks, who was out walking his dog.

But one boy, 11-year-old Stephen Baltz of Illinois, survived the initial accident for more than a day before succumbing to his wounds.

The TWA flight hurtled to its doom on Staten Island, killing all 44 passengers.

News didn’t travel fast then, and in the midst of a Cold War, there was uncertainty — and fear.

“The nuns at St. Thomas Aquinas on Fourth Avenue had all the kids go under their desks,” recalled Park Slope lifer Tom Miskel, who was 15 at the time. “They thought there might have been an attack.”

The entire block became “an arena of terror, ” according to press accounts.

Fiumefreddo remembers seeing burnt bodies being taken to a nearby bowling alley, now a pool hall on Flatbush Avenue. “It became a morgue,” he said.

The crash sent ripples across the borough — and still resonates.

“Fifty years later it is as vivid to me as the day it happened,” said Bob Thoelen, a Bensonhurst-born aerospace engineer now living in Connecticut.

“This was the first time I came face to face with death,” said Thoelen, who was classmates with Elaine Cooper, daughter of the Sanitation worker who died at the scene. “I learned that people die.”

Thoelen vividly remembers everyone praying for Baltz, but he died 26 hours later, his body badly burned and his lungs scorched by jet fuel.

In his brief time at Methodist Hospital — then, as now, on Sixth Street — Baltz made an impact, lucidly telling the doctors of his ordeal.

“I remember looking out the plane window at the snow below covering the city,” he told his caregivers. “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 on to my seat and then the plane crashed.”

A small bronze memorial to the crash victims hangs in the hospital’s chapel, a plaque containing the coins — 65 cents worth — that were in the boy’s pocket.

A larger memorial will be unveiled next week at Green-Wood Cemetery, where a memorial service is planned. The eight-foot-tall granite monument will feature a bronze plaque etched with the names of those killed, and will stand near a gravesite where remains of some victims are interred.

For decades, the crash site was something of a neighborhood curse, with many development projects failing before a condominium finally rose on Sterling Place at Seventh Avenue three years ago.

Worse, perhaps, is that so few of the new Brooklynites even know of the crash.

Inside Fiumefreddo’s Park Slope Barber Shop — a century-old institution on Seventh Avenue — Alfredo Fiumefreddo was cutting the hair of a young patron, oblivious to the questions of a reporter about a long-forgotten past.

“A plane crashed here?” the customer softly asked his barber.

Memorial unveiling and memorial serice at Green-Wood Cemetery [enter at 25th Street and Fifth Avenue in Greenwood Heights, (718) 768-7300] on Dec. 16 at 9:45 am.

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Reasonable discourse

Peter from carrol gardens says:
increase the SIZE OF YOUR FONT please
Dec. 6, 2010, 10:56 am
Tony V from South Slope says:
I keep seeing this article running about an event that happened on December 16, not December 6. So technically 50 years have not passed yet.

Better that you commemorate the death of John Lennon this week.
Dec. 6, 2010, 12:01 pm
Anthony Scotto from Carroll Gardens says:
I can remember hearing about this while I was stationed at Fort Sill, Oklahoma. At first, details were a little sketchy (at least in Oklahoma) and we wre not quite sure where the plane had crashed.
Dec. 7, 2010, 8:24 am
Jim O'Neill from Park Slope says:
I had hoped the developers of the new condo on that corner would have put a plaque on the building. We should memorialize that spot. The crash was also almost the end of Park Slope, as it was an excuse for Robert Moses to raze the neighborhood and put housing projects there. The reaction to this was community outrage that culminated in the historic district Park Slope is today. So in addition to remembering the victims of the crash, we should mark the beginning of the salvation of the best neighborhood in the world.
Dec. 7, 2010, 10:20 am
chuck Reichenthal from Midwood/Kensington/Flatbush says:
Seeing the wreckage of that plane sprawled across the streets is not one that I am apt to ever forget. The image is as sharp as visiting the 9/11 site two days after that carnage. I recall gaping at what was left of the Pillar of Fire Church, and the silent crowds standing at the corner, quietly trying to digest the disaster in front of them. There was silent talk about the thought that the pilot had tried to land in Prospect Park... And talk about what worse could have happened had the plane gone down on Flatbush Avenue. The wreckage was everywhere, and we could only image the man who had been selling Christmas trees at the site... and the spot where the sole, but doomed, survivor had lain. We all stood silently, not able to comprehend this Park Slope scene, so awdully out of context with what we knew. And, then, we looked at the remains of the Pillar of Fire once more...and then again. None could ever imagine a worse scene; none could imagine a far worse image of toppling buildings in Lower Manhattan that was looming so ominously in the future.
Dec. 7, 2010, 2:14 pm
peppertree5706 from Brighton Beach says:
I was only one, but I come across people who still talk about this. My mom is from Park Slope.
Dec. 7, 2010, 8:46 pm
sid from boerum hill says:
to increase the size of the type press ctrl and plus together or ctrl and the scroll on your mouse to make the print bigger or smaller
Dec. 8, 2010, 2:34 pm
Joe N. from Carroll Gardens says:
Thank you, for covering this. Sad that a 50-year commemoration can pass, without a new plaque dedicated right there -- but Methodist hospital to its credit has kept that solemn reminder of that day and loss of life. As a former resident of Sterling/7th, I can attest that a surprising number of Slope/Brooklyn residents are very much aware of that crash and many would be appreciative of your reflection.
Dec. 10, 2010, 7:07 pm
Paul H. from Coney Island says:
I'm actually in Columbus, OH. We had a story in our local paper about this tragic event talking about some of the folks who lost their lives from Columbus including the founder of the old Highlights for Children magazine. Great comments from you locals really shedding light on something I wasn't aware of until today.
Dec. 13, 2010, 2:04 pm
gary p from bay ridge says:
I was 6 at the time and still remember it even thought i never saw it. I lived in bay ridge at the time and remember hearing about it and seeing the Daily News the next day with all the pictures. I remember that only a child survived and that sadly he died later. After that area was cleaned up my Dad drove us there to see the area. I had a friend who move to my block a couple of years later who told me of seeing it happen from his classroom in St. Augustine's school. I still think of this
event from time to time....geez i'm getting old....50 yrs ago wow
Dec. 13, 2010, 7:53 pm
Todd C from Ohio says:
My uncle, Richard Bitters from Athens, OH was on Flight 266. It was 7 years before I was born. I haven't heard much about the crash, other than a few times my mom has mentioned it. It's nice to know so many people recognize this tragedy and are keeping the memories of those on the flights alive. Thank You
Dec. 13, 2010, 11:06 pm
Ethan Aneshansley from Park Slope says:
The suggestion by Tony V to memorialize John Lennon over the victims of this crash is misplaced and ignorant. They both/all deserve our respect and memories. Tony, I believe John Lennon himself would slap you in the face for your lack of respect and heart.
Dec. 16, 2010, 4:22 pm
Joe Ciraulo from Park Slope says:
I remember this all to well. The plane came right over my school, Saint Francis Xavier. I remember my friend shouting out "LOOK AT THAT PLANE" A Very sad day. May they all RIP.
Nov. 4, 2013, 8:15 pm
Leslie from south brooklyn says:
I was 8 years old when this happened and remember it like it was yesterday. I was in the 3rd grade in St. Augustine's school. The noise was so loud and the school was vibrating from the plane being so low. The nun had us under our desks and of course we were praying. The plane did hit the steeple of the church which is connected to the school. It was a day I will never ever forget. Such a tragedy.....
Dec. 31, 2014, 12:34 pm
Deborah L. from Lynbrook, Long Island says:
Although only 8 years old then, I well recall the terrible air crash and the photo of little Steven Baltz in the snow and how he lived for a time. It made a deep impression on me. I was pulling for him to survive, but that was not to be. It's somehow comforting, all these years later, to know that others also felt this story so deeply. I was able to read more about Steven on the Internet and it seemed as if he was destined to grow into a fine man.
March 24, 12:47 pm

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