Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Brooklyn Navy Yard Fire December 20, 1960

December 17, 2010 marked the 50th anniversary of the mid-air collision of two planes over the skies of New York City. One of the planes landed on Miller Field in Staten Island, the second plane landed on the streets of Park Slope Brooklyn. In total 134 people died. Surprisingly, this wasn’t the only tragedy to affect New York City that holiday season. Situated roughly two miles from the crash site on 7th Avenue and 32nd Street there was a massive fire at the Brooklyn Navy Yard on the future aircraft carrier the USS Constitution. In that accident, 50 workers were killed and 330 were injured. If it wasn’t for Clyde Haberman’s article Recalling a Brooklyn Disaster Otherwise Forgotten from December 21, 2010, I’d have never have known it. Before I go into my views on why this disaster seems to be a footnote in New York City history, let me shed some light on the incident.

According to Charles Grutzner of the New York Times on December 20, 1960 the fire started when a lift truck damaged a 500-gallon fuel tank. The fuel made contact with a welder’s torch causing the temporary wooden scaffold and the other flammable materials used on the construction of the ship to feed the blaze. Within minutes a fire was raging out of control that it took over 12-hours to put it out. Many of the firefighters that were on the scene at the plane crash were also on the scene of the aircraft carrier fire. Watch the following video which chronicles both the Park Slope plane crash and the Brooklyn Navy Yard fire from local news footage of the day for images and more information on both accidents.

In the following days, hearings into trying to resolve the cause of the fire led to accusations by the New York City Deputy Fire Commissioner Albert S. Pacetta that the United States Navy of trying to discredit the Fire Department and their efforts during the fire. Regardless of who was to blame for the accident, the fact remains that 50 civilian dockworkers were killed and 330 were injured without so much as a peep in terms of a public acknowledgement aside from an article in the New York Times.

I made a mention of how certain incidents fall from the mind of people over time in my post on the General Slocum. With that incident, it seems that the lives lost on the fire of the paddleboat are forgotten in comparison to those lives lost on the steamship Titanic a few months later. Why is it that those lives that were lost in the plane crash are honored with a memorial in Greenwood Cemetery and those lost at the Brooklyn Navy Yards are not? Is it possible that we can empathize with people who lose their lives in a plane crash since air travel is something common to every one of us? I really don’t have a concise answer to those two questions. All I’m trying to do is shed a little light on a piece of New York City History that seems to be lost to time.