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.



just granny said...

i remember this incident well .I was at home in
Farmingdale,NY when I received the news that my husband and many of his coworkers were trapped at the bottom of the ship surrounded by fire . My heart left my body and I dropped to my knees and prayed.I held my 4 month old daughter and two other beautiful children and prayed that their dad would come home. My neighbors whom I still think of and pray for were wonderful to us.Some of the men perished and some made it out.My husband thank the Lord made it out.When finally he was able to speak about it , he said that many of the survivors took grease and covered themselves with it and climbed out of the port holes, They were such hero's I recently asked my children if their dad had ever told them of the ordeal. He never did. This is a tribute to those good men and the many friends that got all of us through that time.
Thank you,from the Bourke family.

FHPromos said...

Thank you very much for your personal and powerful words. The idea of trying to squeeze through a port hole fr survival is chilling. Thank goodness that your husband was one of those who was able to do so and for those friends who helped you through an incredible time.

Thanks again,
Francisco Hilario Jr.

edward dartford said...

Fire fighting was hindered because shipyard people would not permit a hole to be cut through the flight deck so as to gain access to the fire. The flight deck was considered to be a structural element. Eventually a hole was cut.

Maryanne Miller said...

It was the Constilation that caught fire.........I know, my Daddy was on that boat! Also, I went to the commisioning of the boat where a plaque is placed inside with the names of the deceased. I also was invited and toured the Connie at her de-commision.



I was a pipe fitter in Shop 56 for six months on the USS Constellation in the Engine room at the age of 24 (I am now 82). Thanks to my brother, who hired me for a job as an Electrician in Rockland County, I left the Constellation 30 days before the fire that killed 50 people in 1960! If it were not for him, I would not be here today enjoying my kids, grand children and great grand children. I am searching for a man named Mr Collucci who I worked with. I do not see him on the list of whom did not survive. If anyone knows his whereabouts, please email me at