Skip to Content

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


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.

Your Aunt Mae

It's a wonderful story in itself... How I came upon one of the nicest ladies I've ever met... She was a flight attendant on that plane and she survived.I only met her this week ... But I think if she could meet or talk to you it would be a blessing to both of you! Write me and I'll send my number!
Valerie Tarantino

mae markidis

she is buried at mt.hope cemetery in Rochester,ny

Raymond Gulley

Raymond Gulley was a passenger on Flight 320. He was on a business trip to New York. He was my uncle and I remember my mother getting a phone call in the middle of the night about the crash. I was 9 years old and can remember that day as if it were yesterday. We waited several days until we heard he was one of the casualties. He lived in Kewanee, Illinois with his wife Mary. He is buried in Wheelersburg, Ohio.


My mother lost her parents in this tragic crash. She was only 8 years old. I am so sorry for you.

God bless your father and

God bless your father and his heroic efforts and compassion. My parents, Joe and Jean Kaye died in the crash leaving behind four children. Of course this tragedy changed the course of all our lives. You should be very proud of your father. I'm sorry that this haunted his life as well as mine!

My father, Edward Gottlieb was one of the survivors

My father, Edward Gottlieb was one of the people pulled from the American Airlines crash at La Guardia, 1959. My father was 49 years old and I was 7 and a half years old. He lived to be almost 88 years old, and passed away in January 1998. The event still haunts me and I am grateful to the tugboat captain and the doctors who saved his life, the internet and the folks who have posted their stories here.

article | by Dr. Radut