A camera crew shoots a snowy Rikers scene for a 1957 TV retelling of the airline disaster
and dramatic rescue. The Armstrong Circle Theatre lens crew stands at the flagpole
of the circular drive's grassy area hidden beneath the snow. In the background
on the right is the Catholic Chapel of the Sacred Heart. On the left is
the Protestant chapel and mission house. The camera faces the Penitentiary area.
The flag pole's circular drive and grassy area that are hidden beneath the snow in the above 1957 photo can be seen in a detail (below right) from a 1948 aerial photo of Rikers Island. They appear below (D) |
Behind the Protestant chapel can be seen, in the aerial view detail, the outer edge of the vast tree nursery that in those days took up much of the island not occupied by the Penitentiary and its support buildings, many of which were clustered near the ferry slip facing the Bronx mainland.
The cultivated woodland supplied most of the trees and shrubs for the Parks Department and also gave inmates an opportunity for job training in tree planting and maintenance.
Wardens, doctors, clergy and others who were needed to respond quickly day or night to sudden emergencies had homes on the island for themselves and their families. Commuting to and from Rikers by ferry sufficed for most staffers since they worked various duty shifts. But a limited few were supposed be available 24x7. During pre-bridge decades, that meant residing there.
On the snowy night of Feb. 1, 1957, when Northeast Airlines Flight 823 crashed into Rikers moments after takeoff from nearby LaGuardia Airport, its initial impact point was the wooded acreage behind but some distance from the Protestant Mission House.
The Protestant minister, the Rev. Dr. E. Frederick Proelss, and members of his family were among the very first on the horrific scene. They helped bring survivors to the safety of their home and soon turned it and its chapel into a makeshift emergency center. For this commemorative presentation, the minister's daughter Dalphine Proelss Lowe shared her recollection of the events of that night:
I heard a loud roar, saw a bright flash of light, and then my Mother screamed. Since I was only 11 years old, I ran into my older brother's room for protection, as he was running up the stairs to my room, and my father was charging into the kitchen to see if his wife was alright.
The first people on the scene were my father, brother (Michael) and John. We could see large flames, billowing white smoke and the outlines of what looked like very small shadows running through the snow. My brother lead the first survivors to our house, while John and my father remained at the scene. Shortly thereafter help came from staff and inmates who had volunteered.
It was an amazing sight, both frightening and truly heroic. The badly burnt survivors were taken from our house to the island's hospital."
The Catholic chaplain, Jesuit Father Anthony Glaser, also responded. Both Rev. Proelss and Fr. Glaser were among those receiving DOC's Meritorious Service Awards for their part in the rescue response to the air crash.
Given the role that the chaplains both played in the plane crash aftermath, calling attention to the presence of their chapels in background of the top-of-page photo of the Armstrong Circle Theatre crew filming the docu-drama about the disaster and rescue is apprpriate.
Entitled Day of Disaster: Riker's Island, the air crash and rescue episode was Number 258 in the series and first aired May 14, 1957 during its 8th and final season with NBC.
The host was John Cameron Swayze, TV news pioneer and later Timex spokesman ("takes a licking, keeps on ticking"). David Susskind and Alfred Levy's Talent Associates, Ltd. produced the Armstrong Circle Theatre. It began as a half-hour show but in 1955 was expanded to a full-hour.
When the series expanded to hour shows, its emphasis on the story content over "star" actors intensified. It began presenting fact-based dramatizations using a news story as a basis or "inspiration." If not the first, it was among the first docu-drama type shows on TV.
The Armstrong Circle Theatre was not the only TV series to devote one of its episodes to the 1957 Rikers air crash and rescue. In 1964, a documentary series that retold stories of people who suvived disasters and other dangerous situations aired Survival: Flight 823.
Narrated by actor James Whitmore and making extensive use of newsreel footage, the documentary returned to the snowy night of Feb. 1, 1957 as seen through the eyes of the Solomonsky family of Syosset, L.I. -- Robert and Sandra and their small son, Gary.
Survival was a syndicated documentary series conceived by Sherman Grinberg and was distributed by Official Films. Grinberg had acquired the American Pathe and Paramount newsreel collections in the 1960s. He has been credited with helping pioneer the archived news film footage industry. After his death more than two decades ago, his company moved from New York to California.
But the Commissioners of NYC's other two major uniformed forces recognized DOC personnel's role in the emergency response. They were quoted by Commissioner Kross in her May 15, 1957 order bestowing the departmental awards. She noted that a Feb. 15, 1957, communication from Fire Commissioner Edward F. Cavanaugh stated, in part:
May I take this opportunity to again congratulate you and your staff for the magnificent work that was accomplisheb by way of rescue and relief to the victims of the plate crash on Rikers Island on Friday, February 1st, 1957. All in all, the work was in the highest tradition of municipal service.
She also noted that a Feb. 15, 1957, communication from Police Commissioner Stephan P. Kennedy stated, in part:
Kross' order also quotes a Feb. 19, 1957, commuication from Penitentiary Warden Harry Silberglitt that stated in part:
NYCHS is indebted to
To List of DOC staffers honored for air crash response.
To: List of names of those aboard Northeast Airlines DC-6A Feb. 1, 1957
To The Andersons of Canada remember.
To Remembering Mario DeRosa.
To Remembering Esther Chopelas.
To CAB report on its investigation of the crash.
To: 1989 airplane crash into Rikers Island channel waters
To: NYCHS home page.
To NYC DOC history menu page.