Pocket Change – A Plane Crash In Brooklyn

This is 126 Sterling Place in Park Slope. Most likely, you’ve never paid much attention to it…

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…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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Reading “Our tribute to a brave little boy,” you will also find 65 cents in nickels and dimes melded to the plaque.

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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.

-SCOUT

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68 comments

  1. Great post. Touching story.

  2. Devin Cloninger

    Very touching post. Thank you. I love this website!!

  3. And another little irony about that building (or the one next to it, hard to tell from the photo). That is the building where the man who murdered Amy Watkins in the neighborhood lived and was arrested in. The murder, which I think happened in 1998, shocked the generally safe Park Slope/Prospect Heights area.

    I never knew about the plaque. Nice story.

  4. Wow. Great find, and great story. Thanks for sharing!

  5. Fascinating post! Thanks.

  6. Fascinating as usual – but with added pathos

  7. According to accounts of the day, the crippled United jet was trying to land in Prospect Park but could not make it.

  8. This post is why Scouting NY is one of my favorite blogs to read right now. Thanks again.

  9. Fantastic post. First time visitor, will add to my list of sites to visit. Keep on keeping on.

  10. Lovely. So touching. Thanks for letting us know about this little gem.

  11. love this post! I think about Stephen Baltz a lot, especially when I pass sterling and 7th. I’ve been so interested in this story since I first heard about it five years ago (there is a photo of the crash up at Triange Sports at 5th and Flatbush and that’s when I discovered it). we are coming up on 50 years since the crash, and I was thinking of doing a photo story on those who were around when it happened… anyway if you search, you can find articles with firsthand accounts from those on the ground, and the most affecting one is the story of the young nurse who tended to stephen overnight. they never told her that they knew he wasn’t going to make it. the smoking gun also has old newsreel footage of the crash. I’m glad you pointed out those different colored bricks; I’d always suspected that’s what they were from but I was never sure.

  12. Larry Bortoluzzi

    Nice, touching story. As a long time Park Slope resident I walked by the previously vacant site many times and had heard the story of the crash but not in such detail.
    However, your current picture is wrong. You show the crash on the south side of Sterling going down the hill from 7th Avenue. The current picture is of an also new development across the street on the north side of Sterling (heading towards Flatbush Avenue). I believe the development that went up on the crash site is a darker red brick building. Check out Google maps and you’ll see.
    Thanks again for the story. — Larry

  13. This is really great, but… 55 cents?

  14. I am clearly an idiot. Great post.

  15. Hi Larry, if you’re referring to the angle of my then-and-now picture comparison, I’m 99% sure I got it right. The key to solving it is the odd window that juts on the second building from the far right. The window is still there:
    http://www.flickr.com/photos/scoutingny/4686270691/
    http://www.flickr.com/photos/scoutingny/4686268295/

  16. 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.

    Have you read Sum: Forty Tales from the Afterlives? One of the stories in that excellent collection, Metamorphosis, posits that there are three deaths: the first is when your body dies; the second, when it is consigned to the grave; and the third death is when your name is spoken by a living person for the last time.

    Thank you for doing your part to ensure Stephen Baltz’s immortality. Amazing story.

  17. I was a kid in LIC when this happened. Thanks for a great story. Very touching.

  18. brian j.mcmanus

    I was eleven years old, the same age as Steven and all my classmates were praying for him. It seemed impossible that
    he died and the picture of this little boy, found in the snow,
    will forever be in my memory. The added info regarding the
    change that was found in his pocket and now in the memorial
    plaque is amazing. As always, thanks for a brilliant post.

  19. You are an awesome writer.

  20. The other airplane crashed on the grounds of Miller Army Air Field in Staten Island (now part of Gateway NRA), causing no damage or casualties on the ground.

  21. I’m amazed that you felt you had to encourage people to read all the way to the end. I couldn’t scroll down fast enough.

    An amazing, touching story. A profoundly moving plaque–somehow, the buffalo nickel really iced it for me.

    Thank you.

  22. Larry Bortoluzzi

    I see what you are saying (both pics do look along 7th Avenue towards Flatbush) and yet I am also quite sure that for years there was a vacant lot on the other (South) side of Sterling which now has its own new development. Your shot of the building with different bricks at the top is a few houses down on the South side of Sterling (just looked at it yesterday). Maybe that’s what confused me. There used to be a funeral home on the Northside of the street that was torn down for that (other) new condo. Maybe the crash took out buildings on both sides of Sterling? Anyway, thanks again for the story. It is way more important than which side of the street we’re looking at. — Larry

  23. I absolutely love this post. More like this one, please!

  24. Thank you for this post. I lived in the Park Slope area from 1990 to 1994. I had heard the story and it stuck with me. That spot on the corner was vacant and I thought about the crash every time I passed it..

  25. Scout, you are so connected to this city’s psyche it’s incredible.

    This event stayed with me all my life. I was 7 and heard the plane crash story on WINS 1010 (which played rock and roll at the time so it was a jolt). The estimated deaths were announced as over a hundred.

    I went to tell my mother what I heard and she said to stop exaggerating and go find something to do.

    We kids in Queens looked up at every plane after that wondering which one would drop next. I guess the closeness in age to the boy that survived and closeness in distance to all that death had a lifelong impact. He certainly wasn’t forgotten.

  26. I’ve heard – though never confirmed – that a much smaller portion of the wreckage landed on Prospect Pl between Flatbush and 6th on the north side and that explains the newer buildings on the north side on that street, including the one featured (and redone about 7 years ago, including adding a new floor) in Brooklyn Modern.

  27. I will never forget the photo of Stephen published that week in Life Magazine, as he looked into the camera. Think it was, at the age of ten myself, my first recognition of our frailty. I felt his breathless shock and pain in an overwhelming emotional way. Upon seeing this post the same emotion wells up once more. Years later friends moved to Sterling Place to raise their family and restore a brownstone, I never realized this scene had occurred right there. Soul survivor. R.I.P.

  28. Great story, I’ve heard stories about the plane crash but this was another take and I never knew someone survived albeit briefly.

  29. GREAT story, Scout. Thanks for taking the time to post this. I am a first time visitor, but will assuredly be back for more.

  30. I’ve heard – though never confirmed – that a much smaller portion of the wreckage landed on Prospect Pl between Flatbush and 6th on the north side and that explains the newer buildings on the north side on that street, including the one featured (and redone about 7 years ago, including adding a new floor) in Brooklyn Modern.

    The government accident report, by the now long-defunct Civil Aeronautics Board, makes no mention of that wreckage. That’s not necessarily significant, as the CAB’s reports were far less detailed than the current NTSB crash reports. I also recall reading that some wreckage fell on Bay Ridge.

  31. One of my earliest memories. I was 4 and we lived at 219 7th Ave. I just remember my mother crying, and I’ve always remembered Stephen; having the same name when you’re a little boy adds to the pathos. Sure glad I Stumbled onto this site.

  32. Just in response to what Larry Bortoluzzi wrote- I remember the funeral home and the vacant lot (which I think was some kind of mini community garden) at that intersection. Both have been gone for quite some time now…

    Anyway, as he added, the story itself is what’s most important. Thanks for posting it. I’ve been in Methodist Hospital enough times, but never went into the chapel. I’ll have to stop in the next time I’m back home in Park Slope. :)

  33. awesome building at 5 Beekman Street, sort of reminds me of the bradbury in los angeles… seen in blade runner and later restored…. awesome!

  34. You made me cry! 65 cents…so poignant, thank you, I’ll hold that kid in my heart today.

  35. Scout, this is a great story. I walk by this building once a week and never realized its significance. Thanks so much for sharing!

  36. just stumbled upon your blog (via twitter) and this is the first post I read. Well done.

  37. Sad, I think about this crash every time I pass by. I was under the impression that this building was hit by a plane twice, (and therefore made the decision never to move to that corner). I believe the second crash was a much smaller plane, but can’t find anything on the net right now. Does anyone remember this? What happened to the condo before it was rebuilt? Curious…

  38. I am in love with your website. As a born and raised New Yorker, you surprise even me with some of these postings (the owls???!?!??!?) but this…this has put me into tears at my work desk. Thank you for all of your work, but especially this. When I saw the memorial picture, I gasped and the tears just came.

    My mother came to NYC in 1963, I will ask her if she remembers this.

    Wow. I am utterly speechless. Your final paragraph says it all. I wholeheartedly agree with you.

  39. Absolutely lovely. This is why I love old buildings and ruins. For the stories that they could tell. Thanks for telling this one.

  40. I vividly remember the plane crash and going to see the wreckage site a few days later. We lived in Clinton Hill about 1/2 mile away. Over then years I’ve read numerous articles, in print, and on the web about the crash and the sad ending for the one crash survivor. But I never knew about the plaque with the coins. Thanks for sharing.

  41. I stumbled upon this post. Very touching and well written story. Makes you think.

  42. everything is illuminated :)

  43. I was 10 years old, and home from school sick, just outside of New York City on that day in 1960. I watched the TV in horror as the story dominated the local airwaves that day. The tragedy was overwhelming. I watched it all day with great hope that the boy would somehow survive. I had nightmares for awhile afterwards. I haven’t thought of this for many years, but your story brought it back, and showed me a little of myself in 1960. Thank you.

  44. the coins are what got me. i teared up.

  45. …how did the death toll go from 128 on both flights (as noted when first mentioning to sole survivor) to 135 on the plaque once Stephen died?

  46. A very touching story. It nearly moved me to tears. I pray for those who perished in the crash.

    Thanks for sharing.

  47. My parents remember it well,because my Aunt lived right down the block!! They all visited the wreckage for two days. My Aunt moved to Red Hook soon after and i believe she has photos taken of the event that are still in my family.

  48. How heart breaking…thanks for sharing such a touching and moving story!!!

  49. That’s a really touching story. I loved it. Thank you for recording it / reminding us. :)

    Rachael
    (from Australia)

  50. im touched…its the small things that we take for granted that help us know we are important.see
    http://kenyanvixen.blogspot.com/ and comment

  51. brave little boy,life aint fair

  52. Hello, just doing some research for my Chinese Laundry website. Lots of information out there. Looking for something else, but cool site. Take care.

  53. beautiful story-i will look for this when i finally get to NY!!!

  54. I remember this crash very well. I was a freshman at St. Joseph’s HS, and when the crash happened there were classmates who had lived there and lost everything. I grew up on 2l Street between 6th & 7th Ave. That day everybody had a story of seeing the plane. My brother was in his school and saw the low flying plane. It just missed the steeple of our church. The whole surrounding community came out to help. When I went to work at Methodist Hospital as a nurse, I used to frequent that chapel. The plaque dedicated to that little boy was never forgotten by the hospital staff. This blog brings back many memories, especially how a community came out to help one another.

    • Michael G. Colucci

      I too was a freshmen at that time at Bishop Loughlin MHS. I wonder did you ever attend our afternoon dances? I remember one girl from your school,but I don’t remember if she was a freshmen in 1960 or 1961. I believe she came from around 7th. and 7th. Her name was Joanne DeSantis. Mike…

  55. I lived two blocks away on 5th avenue and was 8 years old when this happened. My father took me to see the wreckage. I’ll never forget it. My school PS 133 was two blocks away and St, Augustine’s school was on Sterling Pl. and 6th avenue, a very close call

  56. Stephen Baltz (Jan. 9, 1949 – Dec. 17, 1960) was eleven, not ten. Early editions of the newspapers had made a mistake. I got to the scene several hours after the crash had occurred. I’ll never forget the sight of the tail section with the word “United” lying in the street, or the child’s doll in the wreckage, or the temporary morgue with bodybags setup at the City Service garage, the smell of formaldehyde permeating the air inside. It was a surreal mess.

  57. Gordon asked: “how did the death toll go from 128 on both flights (as noted when first mentioning to sole survivor) to 135 on the plaque once Stephen died?”

    Seven people on the ground were killed. 128+7=135.

  58. i was 8 years old that day, home from school, sick, with my grandmother watching soap operas. a news bulletin broke in and told us about the plane crash and the only person alive. i remember praying for steven and hoping he would make it. thr daily news had an article about the crash this past sunday (12/12) and i saw this story. thank you for this story

  59. I was only 3 months old, so I wouldn’t have remembered anything, but it made it into the folklore of growing up in New York. I learned of it at least by the time of its 10th anniversary, in 1970.

    Thanks for the pictures of the Stephen Baltz Memorial plaque. I always wondered what it looked like and where exactly I could find it. Now I’ll come down to pay my respects and say a prayer…

  60. According to accounts of the day, the crippled United jet was trying to land in Prospect Park but could not make it.

    Possibly, but there’s no way to know for sure. There were no radio communications from the United jet after the impact, and the aircraft either didn’t have a cockpit voice recorder or it wasn’t recovered.

    Looking at pictures of the aftermath, there’s one obvious difference between then and now: spectators were allowed to go very close to the crash scene, today the police lines would be blocks away with the entire neighborhood evacuated.

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  62. i was 8 years old at the time. my father was the united employee who was waiting to flag the plane into its gate at the terminal when it arrived. he came home that night and told the family how he was waiting for the plane to arrive when his supervisor came out and got him. i remember following the story very closely because steven was very close in age to me and because my father worked for united.

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