NEW YORK — Fifty years to the day after two airliners collided over New York City, relatives of some of the 134 victims gathered Thursday to share memories of their loved ones at the unveiling of an 8-foot-tall monument.
"It opens up old wounds but in a way it's good for closure," said Larry Katz, whose brother Samuel was a 19-year-old sailor on leave when he died in the crash. "It's something that we never had."
The crash of a United DC-8 jet and a TWA propeller plane on Dec. 16, 1960 was the world's deadliest aviation disaster at the time. Six people were killed on the ground when the United jet slammed into the Brooklyn neighborhood of Park Slope.
Brooklyn's historic Green-Wood Cemetery hosted Thursday's memorial cemetery.
All the crash victims were recovered and are buried elsewhere, but Green-Wood President Richard Moylan said the cemetery's genealogist discovered while thumbing through old index cards this past year that unidentified remains of some of the victims are buried in an unmarked grave at Green-Wood. The gravesite had been purchased by United Airlines.
Moylan said cemetery officials decided to erect a monument near those unidentified remains because "there really had never been a fitting commemoration" for the 1960 crash.
Moylan himself was a first-grader at a Catholic school in Park Slope on the day of the crash.
"I was in school that day when the roar of the plane passed overhead," he recalled. "The shadows were seen on the large windows of the school. Sister had us under our desks, fearing a Soviet attack. And then we prayed the Rosary."
About 100 people including family members of several of the victims attended Thursday's ceremony. The Sanitation Department's bagpipers played "Amazing Grace" as Moylan and elected officials unveiled the granite obelisk.
Sanitation Commissioner John Doherty, who joined the department in 1960, recalled that a co-worker was one of those killed on the ground on Dec. 16. Sanitation worker Charles Cooper was shoveling snow. "His remains were later identified only by the knot on his shoe," Doherty said. "He had a particular way of tying up his boots."
The United plane destroyed at least 10 buildings when it crashed into Brooklyn. The TWA plane crashed into a military air base on Staten Island.
The United flight had been en route from Chicago to what is now John F. Kennedy International Airport; the TWA flight was en route from Dayton and Columbus, Ohio, to LaGuardia.
Craig Ewart's father, Cyril, was on the TWA flight.
"My father had just gone out to New York for a day, that was the plan," said Ewart, who was 17 at the time. "When I came home from school the clergyman was there and took me aside and told me what had happened. And time just stopped."
Both of Kevin Root's parents, Florence and Samuel, were on the United Flight. Root teared up during the ceremony, which he said was "a long time coming."
"I thought I was over it, but you never get over it," Root said afterward. "It's unending."
Root was 5 when his parents were killed coming home from a vacation.
"It was at times very hard, at times extremely difficult," said Root, of Greenwich, Conn. "I think I hold the record for being in therapy, and I turned into one myself."
Family members said they were grateful for the opportunity to grieve along with others affected by the same disaster.
"We all felt so isolated," Eward said. "It was very scary."
Walter Katz, another of young Samuel Katz's brothers, said there was no collective mourning 50 years ago. "They didn't grieve in the old days like today," he said. "There was no groups to go to. ... I'm glad they done this. It's great, a great idea."
Green-Wood Cemetery is the final resting place of many notables including composer Leonard Bernstein, artist Jean-Michel Basquiat and 19th century churchman Henry Ward Beecher. The cemetery was founded in 1838 and is a National Historic Landmark.