USA Coin Album: 65 Cents

Posted on 2/12/2019

A handful of small change recalls a terrible tragedy.

Among the television shows I enjoy is a long-running series called Mysteries at the Museum. Though not always entirely accurate, these programs do succeed in applying a human story to various pieces on display at museums around the world. One such object that would be ideal for telling its tragic tale is found on a wall of the chapel at Methodist Hospital in Brooklyn, New York. It is a bronze plaque mounted to a wooden base and reading:

Remembering 135 Victims of
The Aircraft Disaster

The text is offset to the right to allow space for nine coins, these being the contents of young Stephen's pocket at the time of the disaster. He had been flying alone to join his family and spend Christmas with relatives in Yonkers, NY, and his grieving father placed the coins in the chapel's collection box. Touched by this gesture, hospital staff preserved these four dimes and five nickels and affixed them to the plaque. What made Stephen's story so compelling is that he alone survived the initial impact, only to linger for several hours and die of his burns the next morning. Americans had been following his unlikely story of survival, and when Stephen finally succumbed it seemed a particularly tragic conclusion to an already dreadful episode.

New York City was experiencing light fog and rain on Friday, December 16, 1960, with some snow earlier in the morning. Around 10:25 am, United Airlines Mainliner Will Rogers, a DC-8 (the carrier's first jetliner, in service just over a year), was heading toward its destination of LaGuardia Airport when it was instructed by air traffic control to enter a holding pattern over New Jersey. At the same time, TWA's propeller-driven Super Constellation Star of Sicily was approaching Idlewild Airport (now John F. Kennedy International) on a flight from Dayton, Ohio. It was later revealed that the United plane was 12 miles off course when it collided with the TWA craft. The latter's fuselage was ripped open by the impact, and the Connie spiraled downward, crashing onto Miller Field, a Coast Guard airfield on Staten Island. The jetliner lost an engine and a big section of its right wing, somehow managing to stay airborne for another 90 seconds. Impossible to control, however, it plunged at high speed into the Brooklyn neighborhood of Park Slope. The impact occurred at the intersection of Seventh Avenue and Sterling Place, and several surviving structures are still discolored from fire and from the replacement bricks of their partially rebuilt walls.

Six persons on the ground were killed by the DC-8 impact, and 128 others died between the two aircrafts' crew and passengers (for reasons unknown, that figure is one less than the number on the plaque). Stephen Baltz, just weeks shy of his 12th birthday, was the only one found alive when he was thrown into a snow bank that doused his flaming clothes. Sadly, he had inhaled burning fuel and died of pneumonia the following day.

A resident of Wilmette, Illinois, Stephen was the eldest of three children born January 9, 1949 to William and Phyllis Baltz. Sister Randee came along the following year, and brother William joined the family about five years after Randee. Stephen was a sixth-grader and a devoted Boy Scout at the time of the crash. Suffering from a sore throat on the day that he was supposed to fly with his mother and sister, his father booked him on another flight out of Chicago leaving a few days later. Stephen was thus traveling alone when fate intervened.

The Baltz Memorial Plaque features three Jefferson nickels, two Buffalo nickels, two Mercury dimes and two Roosevelt dimes. Since Stephen was not known to be a coin collector, these pieces are a reliable representation of the coins circulating in 1960. I was not able to inspect the plaque in person, and the published photos of it are not sharp enough to read the coin dates, but that's of no real importance. The plaque has been cleaned repeatedly, so the coins' value lies in their sentimental significance as belonging to a single child who epitomized the loss of so many lives in an air tragedy now largely forgotten.

David W. Lange's column, “USA Coin Album,” appears monthly in The Numismatist, the official publication of the American Numismatic Association.

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