This is 126 Sterling Place in Park Slope. Most likely, you’ve never paid much attention to it…
…and if you have, chances are you haven’t noticed the that the bricks on the upper levels don’t match the rest of the building.
While it might seem like a trivial detail, this is pretty much the only clue that the area once played a role in one of the worst airplane disasters in history.
On December 16, 1960, two commercial airliners collided in mid-air over Staten Island. One plane crashed into Staten Island; the other, in Park Slope, Brooklyn, with much of the wreckage landing at the intersection of Sterling Place and Seventh Avenue. Ten brownstones, a church, a funeral home, a deli, and a Chinese laundry all caught fire or were destroyed.
This is the above picture recreated today. A new development has replaced the building on the corner and an additional level has been added to the next building, but the rest is more or less the same.
Of the 128 passengers and crew members aboard the two flights, all were killed save for one young boy: 10 year old Stephen Baltz of Wilmette, Illinois.
Stephen was traveling alone to meet his mother and sister, who had flown in the previous day. They were planning to spend Christmas together in Yonkers.
Somehow, Stephen miraculously survived the plummet of over 5,000 feet, though was badly injured. Local residents quickly rolled him in a snowbank to extinguish his burning clothes, and he was rushed to the nearby New York Methodist Hospital.
Stephen was conscious, and was briefly interviewed by rescuers. He related that, prior to the crash, he saw snow falling on the city out the plane window, and “It looked like a picture of a fairy book. It was a beautiful sight.” As for the crash: “I heard a big noise while we were flying. The last thing I remember was the plane falling.”
Stephen succumbed to his injuries and died the following day.
Above is a picture of the New York Methodist Hospital’s Phillips Chapel, open to the public 24 hours a day. It is largely unremarkable except for one small detail when you first enter: a plaque on the wall memorializing Stephen and the other 135 victims of the crash.
Reading “Our tribute to a brave little boy,” you will also find 65 cents in nickels and dimes melded to the plaque.
This was the pocket change Stephen Baltz carried with him on that flight.
I find this small plaque to be that rare instance of perfection in simplicity, effortlessly compelling the viewer to reflect on all aspects of life: hopes and dreams; triumphs and failures; priorities and difficulties; friends and family; life and death.
If you’re ever in the area, stop by and take a moment to touch the coins for yourself. You can visit the chapel by entering the New York Methodist Hospital through the main entrance (non-emergency) on 6th Street between 7th & 8th Avenues. The door to the chapel will be directly in front of you, and you don’t have to ask permission to go in.
I’m one of those people whose concept of the afterlife is that we live on until we’re forgotten – and for reasons I’m not eloquent enough to put into words, I hope Stephen Baltz is never forgotten.
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