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Irving Herzberg and the Plane Crash of 1960

Dec 16, 2010 1:35 PM | 4 comments

New York City accomodates all juxtapositions. Spend enough time here and no two things paired together, however odd, will seem unusual. This is the city where nothing can be out of place however willy-nilly the arrangement may be: from the gently surreal sight of a coyote cowering beneath a SUV in Manhattan, to the more terrible and spectral image of ash covered workers wandering the daytime streets of the Financial District. Whether it is welcome or not, the city will make room for it. But for all this open-armed receptiveness -- allowing this or that to suddenly and irrevocably appear and to become a new fact of city life -- the city remains a strange host and one whose ultimate indifference can seem a form of cruelty.

50 years ago today a United Air Lines DC-8 jet and a Trans World Airlines Lockheed Super-Constellation collided in the air above New York. Most of the Super-Constellation ended up at Miller Army Air Field in Staten Island while the United flight went down at Seventh Avenue and Sterling Place in Park Slope, just up Flatbush from the Central library here at Grand Army Plaza.

Six people on the ground were killed, including a sanitation worker out shoveling snow, a church caretaker, and two Christmas tree salesmen. Everyone on board the two flights died. One 11 year-old Illinois boy, Stephen Baltz, survived the crash only to die a day later. You can still find a memorial plaque at the chapel of the Methodist hospital where he passed away, the coins he had in his pocket at the time of his death attached to it.

At the time, it was the worst aviation disaster in history. The streets of Brooklyn looked as though they had been bombed.

The jet plummeted through one tenement on Sterling Place and eventually crashed into the Pillar of Fire Church. A series of small explosions set off fires in a total of 10 brownstones in the area, ruining many.

These photos of the crash scene were all taken by Irving Herzberg, a German immigrant who worked for nearly 40 years developing photos out of a cramped bathroom in Coney Island. We have his life's work here in our collection -- around 2,300 photographs -- and it is a work marked by its devotion to the common, day-in-and-day-out scenes of life in Brooklyn: children asleep on the subway; couples talking on their stoops; scenes from the usually closed-off Hasidic community; boys leaping from piers into the ocean off Coney Island.

And on this day 50 years ago, Herzberg was there again, recording an ordinary day that turned out to be extraordinary -- looking on at the people of Brooklyn as they themselves looked on at a sight so incomprehensible and awful.


12/17/2010 3:08:47 PM #

My goodness.  This is my worst nightmare come true.  I was never aware that such a crash took place in American history, let alone Brooklyn's history.  It makes me more assured in counting my blessings and praying such a horrendous incident never happens again.


12/29/2010 11:04:42 AM #

I moved to Brooklyn in 1995, and I lived on that corner for several years in the early 2000s, so I have been quite intrigued with this bit of history for a while now. But these are the best photos I've seen. Thanks for sharing.


1/3/2011 2:10:45 PM #

Ashamed to admit that, although I was in your Country in 1960, I was not aware of this tragedy. Used to dock at Pier 1 Brooklyn, under the bridge. Doubtless 'somewhat changed' area now from that of over half a century ago. Time flies faster the older you get!

Graham Smith

1/6/2011 3:18:07 AM #

I rember going to the crash site with my father to take pictures of the sceen, I was 5 at the time and lived in Boro Park,Then in 1964 We moved to Trump in Coney Island.
Irving Hertzberg lived in my building and started a Photography Club and had his darkroom in the building  6
Laundry Room
Gordon Gattsek

Gordon Gattsek