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New York City, NY Plane Crashes Into East River, Feb 1959



New York (AP) -- A glistening new jet-powered American Airlines plane with 73 persons aboard plunged into the chilling, fog covered waters of the East River with a shattering crash late last night. Sixty-five apparently perished, despite feverish rescue efforts by harbor craft.
The plane's pilot, using instruments because of the murky weather conditions, was feeling his way gingerly toward a runway at LaGuardia Airport after a flight from Chicago.
But for some undetermined reason, the big four-engine turbo-prop craft smacked into the water and burst apart about half a mile from the shore end of the runway.
Some of the passengers and crew were flung from or floated out of the wreckage before it sand to the river bottom 30 to 36 feet below.
Tug Rescues Eight.
A tugboat chugging along a few hundred feet away cut loose two barges it was towing here from Connecticut and raced to the crash site. Crewmen leaped into the water or used boathooks to pull out the eight persons known to have survived. One was an eight year old boy.
A member of the tug's crew said the sights and sounds were something never to be forgotten.
"There seemed to be bodies all around, and there were continual screams for help," he said.
All through the night and ito a doleful gray, rainy dawn a huge array of boats searched the grimy river waters for bodies. By mid-morning only 10 had been recovered, leaving 48 still missing. The 8 survivors were in hospitals.
One woman, the mother of the rescued boy, also had been pulled from the water alive but died afterward. The boy said later his mother swam and held his head above water before he was rescued.
Bodies Swept Away.
Swirling river current, plus rain and wind up to 40 m.p.h., hampered the search for other bodies, and gave rise to fears that some of them might be swept miles out into Long Island Sound.
The site of the crash was marked by a few floating pieces of the $1,700,000 Lockheed Electra airliner -- a type put into service with great fanfare only a few weeks ago.
There also were some heartbreaking other reminders of the tragedy -- such as a baby's glove, a woman's shoe, a package of letters, a knapsack and a woman's dress.
It was a irony of fate that the tugboat happened to be near the crash. New York Harbor tugs, ordinarily scurrying busily up and down the river waters, are now tied up by a strike of crewmen.
The tug which raced to the rescue, however, was not affected by the tieup because it is based in Connecticut.
TV Producer Missing.
Among the missing plane passengers persumed dead were BEULAH ZACHARY, producer of the Kukla, Fran and Ollie television program and RICHARD WINN, director of facility planning for Amercian Airlines.
The new turbo-prop airliners were designed to combine jet power with the advantages of the propeller. The engines operate on the turbine principle.
The liner was easing toward LaGuardia through light rain and fog, in 38-degree weather with the ceiling about 300 to 400 feet.
It plummeted into the river between 2,500 and 4,000 feet short of the shoreline start of the runway. The force of the impact cracked the plane in two.
The disaster scene was only about half a mile from Rikers Island, where a Northeast Airliner crashed after takeoff in a snowstorm Feb. 1, 1957. Twenty of the 94 persons aboard the Northeast plane were killed.
The American airliner crashed at 11:54 p.m. (EST), 49 minutes after it was due at LaGuardia.
Saw Plane Crack Up.
A tugboat crew heading down the river heard the crash and rushed to the scene.
"We heard a terrific crash," said Everett Phelps, 48, coskipper to the tug. "The noise seemed to come from about 800 feet away. We turned on a searchlight and saw a plane cracking up in all directions."
He added:
"I pulled three persons out. There seemed to be bodies all around, and there were continual screams for help."
Phelps said his crew had picked up eight survivors using boat hooks for some, before the wreckage slipped away from them in the darkness.
Coast Guard boats raced to the scene and gave a tragic report of "picking up bodies everywhere."
A temporary morgue was set up at a nearby Queens Point, and survivors were rushed to Flushing Hospital. Seven were in critical condition.
Pilot Missing.
Among the missing was the pilot, Capt. ALBERT H. DeWITT of Decatur, Mich.
An official of the new Federal Aviation Agency said that "the last contact with the pilot was routine in nature."
Joseph D. Blatt, FAA regional administrator, said the plane was making a "standard instrument approach to LaGuardia from the northeast."
The last contact was made as the plane flew over a range station, 2.8 miles from the end of the runway.
"At this time the pilot acknowledged clearance to land," Blatt said.
Normal altitude for the plane over the range station would have been 800 feet.
Blatt said the plane was coming in on one radio beam which told the pilot if he was directly in line with the runway.
The pilot did not have a second radio beam, which operates at the runway's other end and which would have indicated whether he was too low or too high in his approach.
The FAA began an immediate investigation of the crash. In Washington, the civil aeronautics board said its two top investigators for New York were en route to the scene.
Members of Crew.
The airline identified the crew members in addition to DeWITT as:
FRANK S. HLAVACEK, the flight officer, Wilmette, Ill.
WARREN E. COOK, the flight engineer, Aurora, Ill.
MAE MARKIDIS, stewardess, of Rochester, N. Y.
JOAN MARIE ZELLER, stewardess, Riverside, R. I.
HLAVACEK, COOK and MISS ZELLER were among the survivors.
Another survivor was BOBBY SULLIVAN, 8, who was picked up swimming free. Phelps, the tugboat captain, said the boy "was numb with cold and unable to talk."
"If only there had been more boats around," Phelps said. "Survivors couldn't last long in that water. We waited until we were sure there were no more living around, and we started toward shore."

The Times Record Troy New York 1959-02-04


New York, Feb. 4 -- (AP) -- The following are dead or missing and presumed dead in the midnight crash of the American Airlines plane here:
COZIER, PHILLIP H., Fairfield, Conn.
EVANS, EVAN, 43, actor, Chicago.
HOWLETT, CHARLES, 39, Danville, Ill.
JANES, W. W., Upper Montclair, N. J.
KASS, HOWARD, New York advertising man.
KATZENBERG, MAURY J., 52, Chicago.
McGRATH, REV. FRANCIS E., 31, Elmhurst, Queens, N. Y.
ZAHN, JOHN, Glen Cove, N. Y.
Missing And Presumed Dead:
BECKER, R., Clinton, N. J.
CONRAD, R. W., Falls Church, Va.
COZIER, Master (child).
DeWITT, Capt. ALBERT H., 59, pilot, Decatur, Mich.
DILLER, A. N., New York.
GALES, B. G., New York.
GULLEY, RAY, Kewanee, Ill.
HENLINE, ROY, Park Forest, Ill.
HUNT, JOHN F., Chicago.
HUNT (Unticketed child).
KAYE, J., Wilmette, Ill.
KAY, MRS. J., same address.
MANICONE, C., North Babylon, N. Y.
MARKIDIS, MISS MAE, 22, stewardess, Rochester, N. Y.
MARTIN, B. J., Glencoe, Ill.
MURPHY, N. P., South Bend, Ind.
PATTERSON, STUART, 28, Evanston, Ill.
RENCNER, B., New York.
SHEVELSON, HARRIS, 42, Westport, Conn.
SHEVELSON, MRS. MARY JANE, same address.
STRECKER, CHARLES E., 35, Danville, Ill.
SULLIVAN, JOSEPH, Hempstead, N. Y.
SULLIVAN, PATRICIA, 13, same address.
SULLIVAN, JOAN, 5, same address.
TAYLORSON, JOHN E., Woodcliff Lake, N. J.
TAYLORSON, MRS., same address.
WEINSTEIN, MR., Chicago.
WILLEMIN, ROBERT D., SR., 33, LaGrange, Ill.
WILSON, MRS. MARJORIE, 39, wife of singer ALANDUS WILSON, Chicago.
WINESTOCK, M., New York.
WINN, RICHARD, 41, Norwalk, Conn.
WOODBURN, R. H., Nashville, Tenn.
ZANE, RIA, New York.
ZEWISKE, HAROLD S., 59, Chicago.
ZIMMERMAN, RABBI D., Flushing, Queens, N. Y.

Oakland Tribune California 1959-02-04


Reply to Robert Markidis

Hello Robert,

How nice of you to write. It seems the Markidis are all very open, sweet people. I can tell by your note to me, you must take after your Dad and Mae. I think of your aunt so often and hold her in my heart as I do all that were aboard that night. It's never left me, even after 58 years, albeit I can handle it better now. Live a full life and be happy, you'll see Mae on the other side of the thin veil that separates us presently. I know she'll greet you with love and warmth, because that's the way she was. God Bless you and your wonderful family.

3 Feb. 1959

Dear Joan,
I remember that night well! Mary Lou Parkes and I, Argie Hoskins were stewardesses flying to where I do not remember. That night I just remember sitting stunned with the American Airline crew weeping and thinking of your awful situation. Our crew was based out of LAX. I stumbled on this site and thought I would like to say, Kiwi Hugs and best to you Joan. I wonder if you were trained at Midway as I was. Good evening and God bless,
Argie Hoskins Class of 57-6

Bobby Sullivan

Hello, my name is Joseph Micheal Sullivan, and I am the grandchild of the 8 year old boy, Bobby Sullivan. After the plane crash and the doctor said his whole family died, my great aunt (who was the sister of Bobby mother) took care of him and he living a happy life now. If you have any more question about my grandpa, I can try to help you find the answer.

I served your Dad on Flight 320

Dear Elizabeth,

I am the surviving stewardess of the ill fated American Airlines crash of 1959. I have always wanted to communicate with your Dad's family and am so happy to see your posted note. I remember your Dad well because we had an on-going dialogue most of the trip.

As you may not know, we encountered foul weather in Chicago and Flight 320 was to be the last flight out before they closed the airport, passengers were informed that seat choices were no longer valid, insofar expediency in seating passengers was essential so we could become airborne ASAP.

We welcomed passengers aboard, helped with their carry-on parcels and got them buckled up ASAP. Your Dad missed the PA announcement that seat choices were not going to be honored due to the impending storm and complained to me. Of course I explained what was going on and got him settled several rows behind his "chosen" seat in an aisle seat, and made him comfortable, but he wasn't too happy.

It was a snack service out of Chicago, so I got to speak with him several times again, as I poured coffee and passed out snack trays, and then again when I picked up trays and checked seat belts for landing, etc.. He was okay and didn't seem as upset as he had been originally.

The HAPPY part is: It was that very seat that "SAVED" him, and I get goose bumps talking about it today. It's STILL very emotional for me. God Bless him, I'm so glad to learn he had a long good life. I imagine he told you how he was thrown clear of the sinking craft still strapped to his seat and was able to paddle over to the partially submerged wing where the Flt. Engineer and Co-pilot helped pull him to relative safety until the tug boat Teti could picked them up.

If you care to communicate with me, my email is available to you I believe, just be sure to clearly identify yourself so I don't delete your email in error thinking it's spam.
Joan M. Zeller
Former American Airlines Flight 320 Stewardess

Re: Joan Zeller American Airline Flight [my grandfather]

Hello Joan, My grandfather, John Zahn, was on your flight. I was only 5yrs. old. I barely remember him, but have heard the many stories about him. My mother adored her father, and was 25 when he died. He was returning home from a business trip in Chicago, and had cancelled his earlier flight, because some friends wanted him to have drinks with them. Ironically, I became a flight attendant, and retired 3yrs. ago. I can't imagine what you went through. I found this website, because I was looking for information about that fateful day, as I found his tickets, and hotel information, that my mother had kept all of these years.

I talked with your Dad on that flight.

Dear ELizabeth,

I'm the surviving Stew from the ill fated American Airlines flight that crashed in the East River. I remember your Dad well, as we had an on going dialog throughout most of the flight, whenever I walked past his seat or offered coffee and snack tray.

If you'd like to communicate with me, feel free to email me. Be sure to identify yourself in the Subject line of the email so I don't delete it as spam.

Joan M. Zeller

1959 Airplane Crash at LaGuardia

Ms. Zeller: I was 13 years old at the time of the crash and living in Flushing. To this day I have never forgotten the crash and the 8 year old survivor, Bobby Sullivan. It was a tragedy etched into my memory and the terror it instilled in me became REALITY --how quickly life can unexpectedly change! Am glad you are a survivor, but I cannot for the life of me find out whatever became of Bobby Sullivan, his later years and life. Would you happen to have any knowledge of his life, and is he even still alive? What eventually became of him? I pray that the lives of all the survivors ultimately became more peaceful than the years would otherwise suggest. Thank you for any info you can provide, and I hope you have been blessed through the years.

Aunt Mae

Dear Ms Zeller: My father Stephen was Mae's twin brother. I would like to thank you for the kind words about my aunt. My father never truly got over the loss of his sister and it followed him all his life. My daughter has twins and from what I hear twins are prevalent in our family. I look at my aunt mae's picture daily and wonder what kind of life I would of had if she would just have lived or how life would have been for my dad. Because of your friendship and kind words for Mae it has brought closer to my family. Thank you, Ms Zeller and may God bless you....Robert

Mae markidis

I am the great niece of Mae markidis. She is buried in mount hope cemetery (rochester, NY) and a lot of the family still resides in rochester.

I was a neighbor

We lived two doors away. I was 12 and I remember the newspapers that morning and then the adults stunned to find out a neighbor had been on that plane and was one of the survivors. Although I took a shortcut through your backyard, daily at times going to H Barnard, I rarely saw your family, not unusual in that area, but I have a distinct image of your father some time afterwards getting in or out of a car. I'm glad to read that he lived a long life.

article | by Dr. Radut