MEMORIES OF FIRE AND DEATH ON STATEN ISLAND - NYPD HESSI
The First Annual HESSI Reunion was held on April 20, 2008.
If the term “HESSI” is unfamiliar to you, HESSI is short for “Highway-Emergency Service Staten Island”
. To understand why the Highway Unit Staten Island, and the Emergency Service Unit, Truck 5
were merged into on organization would require a little knowledge of recent history of the NYPD.
During my service with the NYPD, I was assigned for many years in the patrol precincts of
Staten Island, so I had the good fortune of working with the members of the old HESSI Unit. Any cop who worked patrol duty can attest to the deep respect that is extended to ESU cops. The
term “emergency service” has been adopted by other police and similar organizations. But to the men and women of the NYPD, “Emergency Service Unit”
has much more of a meaning.
There were at the time seven patrol boroughs. Manhattan was divided into two area
commands, Manhattan South, and Manhattan North, Brooklyn was also divided into two area commands, Brooklyn South, and Brooklyn North, then there was Patrol Borough Bronx,
Patrol Borough Queens, and Patrol Borough Staten Island. At a point in time, the NYPD realized that Patrol Borough Staten Island was a unique command when compared with the
other boroughs of NYC. Any map would show that Staten Island was geographically separate from the rest of the City of New York. Cops who worked in Patrol Borough
Staten Island knew how isolated they were from the rest of the City. Over the years, they had become accustomed to not depending on assistance from the other Borough Commands.
For instance, in an emergency, the only way that assistance could arrive from Brooklyn would be the old “69th Street Ferry” that had a dock at the Staten Island Ferry Terminal in the confines of the 120th
Precinct. Assistance from Manhattan would be by the Staten Island Ferry. The construction of the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge
was completed in 1964 and led to changes in police procedures on Staten Island.
On the morning of December 16, 1960
, one of the most horrific incidents that occurred on Staten Island was the mid-air collision of two aircraft over the New Dorp section with loss of many casualties. I was serving in the US Army at Fort
Benjamin Harrison, Indiana and had just walked into the day room of the barracks when some of the other soldiers yelled to
me about an airplane crash in New York City. I ran into the room and the television reports were filled with news about the
two aircraft colliding over Staten Island. I called home to verify that my folks were OK. Over the next few hours, the news reported that all 44 on board TWA Flight 266
and 84 on board United Airlines Flight 826 had been killed.
Eyewitnesses on the ground reported that the TWA Constellation was seen disintegrating in midair as it hurled to the ground and crashed into Miller Field
. Miller Field had been an Army Air Corps airfield and was then also being used for civilian aircraft. It is now part of Gateway Recreation Area under the US Parks Department. News film and photos showed
police officers, firefighters, and medical personnel at the Miller Field crash scene. Parts of human bodies were scattered
over the airfield and the adjoining neigborhood. As the aircraft broke apart in midair, one of the engines of the TWA had
crashed into a ballfield opposite the Berry Homes, a NYC Public Housing apartment complex in the Dongan Hills section of
Staten Island. To this day, I am amazed that no one was killed or injured on the ground on Staten Island. 1960 New York air disaster - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Wreckage of TWA Flight 266 in Miller Field, Staten Island
NY Daily News PHoto
United Airlines Flight 826 crashed into the street near the intersection of Sterling Place and Seventh Avenue in the Park Slope section of Brooklyn
. One 11 year old boy, had briefly survived when he was thrown into a snow bank, but later, he too died as a result of his injuries. Six people on the ground also were killed. The aircraft was totally destroyed
and the fire cause extensive damage to a group of brownstones as well as the Pillar of Fire Evangelical Church.
Wreckage of United Flight 826 Sterling Place and Seventh Avenue, Brooklyn, Dec 16, 1960
NY Daily News Photo
NEWSREEL OF THE TWO CRASH SITES COURTESY OF YOUTUBE
This accident occurred during the construction of the Verrazano Bridge. With the disaster in two Patrol Borough
Commands, the NYPD ESU would need to assist at both locations. The response time factor was obvious. The NYPD ESU units as well as the FDNY Rescue companies such as Rescue 2
would be able to respond quickly to the scene. However, on Staten Island, there would be no such quick response. To understand the “spirit of the times” let me recall a
few facts about working on Staten Island.
The few cops who were available that day included cops from the 122nd Precinct
. The long awaited new stationhouse for the 122nd Precinct
was under construction a short distance away from Miller Field on Hylan Boulevard. Local cops called the 122 Precinct, the “New Dorp Precinct”. For now, the few cops assigned to the New Dorp Precinct were housed in
an old condemned wooden schoolhouse located on Eighth Street.
I would venture to guess that on a typical day tour during 1960, there would be fewer than two patrol cars on duty in the New Dorp Precinct covering an area the size of Manhattan. The two other patrol precincts on Staten Island would not
have much more coverage. The only NYPD Emergency Service truck was quartered in the 120th Precinct in St. George.
The local Communications Unit worked out of the 2nd floor of the 120th Precinct Stationhouse in the “St. George Precinct”.
On the Morning of December 16, 1960, the few patrol cars in the New Dorp Precinct and the 120th Precinct ESU Truck
would be faced with death and destruction on a massive scale. The cops who first responded to the scene must have been aghast at what confronted them.
For the patrol cops who were the first responders on that morning so long ago, the scene that unfolded before their eyes
would stay with them for the rest of their lives. The wreckage of the aircraft was scattered all over Miller Field. Bodies and
parts of bodies were everywhere. The blood on the snow covered field added to the gruesomeness of the task at hand. One of the first cops to respond to the scene was Patrolman Peter Paul, 122nd Precinct, and his brother, Patrolman Gerard
Paul, Emergency Service NYPD, who is now deceased. Both cops were off-duty at the time and were Christmas shopping
on New Dorp Lane. They actually witnessed the doomed aircraft as it broke apart in mid-air and crashed in Miller Field.
Miller Field was actually still in operation as a US Army air field for small aircraft at the time of the accident. Two airplane hangers are still in existence that serve the Gateway Recreation Area today.
Ptl Peter Paul, 122nd Precinct, in later and happier times.
The airfield was fenced off in those days, so the Paul brothers got a ladder and climbed over the fence. When I interviewed
Patrolman Paul for this article, he remembered being horrified by the sight of body parts and debris scattered all over the
field. The wreckage of the fuselage lay at one end of the field and the tail section a distance away. As he and his brother
Gerard ran to the fuselage section, the thick black smoke kept them from entering the wreckage. They ran to the tail
section that didn’t seem to be afire and as they approached it, a US Coast Guard helicopter hovered over them and dropped a package containing fire extinguishers and cutting tools.
Paul saw the passengers still attached with their seatbelts in the tail section. Some of them were barely alive and moaning
could be heard coming from some of the victims. They were able to cut four of them out of their seats and placed them a
distance from the aircraft. The fifth victim was removed with his seat attached as it had been broken loose in the crash. Paul
recalled hearing that victim moaning when he took him out. None of the victims survived. A year after the accident, Paul
remembered being interviewed about the accident and learning that the fifth victim was, in fact, a Roman Catholic Priest.
Ptl Peter Paul, 122 Pct (Head circled) on left side of photo walks from tail section at scene
Note the absence of NYPD and FDNY personnel at the scene. NY Daily News photo
For what seemed an eternity, Patrolman Paul and his brother were the only few who responded to the scene. It must be
noted that in 1960, cops had no portable radios to call for assistance. There were no cell phones either. For cops who
respond daily to scenes of death and destruction, it is a lonely time between first arrival on the scene and when help arrives.
As I have written before, patrol duty is the most difficult task in policing. Those cops in those radio cars are the first
responders who must deal with every conceivable problem without the benefit of time and advice of supervisory officers.
They must make life and death decisions in real time. Many a cop learns early in his or her career that “patrol” is a heavy
duty job. Not everyone can hack it on patrol, but that is where the action is in police work. But, to the men and women
on patrol duty, the Emergency Service cops are like the US Cavalry riding to the rescue.
Patrolman Paul remembered meeting Patrolman Carl Kuhn, his fellow cop on the scene of the disaster. Patrolman Kuhn, 122nd Precinct, was on duty performing a
day tour. However, he had been assigned to the Christmas Detail patrolling Tappen Park in the Stapleton section of the 120th Precinct when a patrol car
picked him up and transported him back to Miller Field. Patrolman Kuhn remembers vividly the terrible scene of destruction. He was immediately assigned
the grisly task of placing UF95 tags on human body parts and marking them for identification. Such duty is similar to graves registration duty in the military.
When I interviewed Carl for this article, he recalled that he and other cops transported the body parts to the morgue at Seaview Hospital. He told me that
the task of piecing together the bodies of the victims was a duty that would haunt him for many years. Officer Kuhn spent what seemed like many hours
performing that sad task. I worked with Officer Kuhn in later years when he was a Detective. I was always impressed with his professionalism. During his last
year on the NYPD, he was assigned to a gruesome homicide that involved the suspect cutting up his father’s body and throwing various parts into the sewer. I
remember wishing Carl good luck in his retirement. The citizens of NYC should know what these men did during their service careers with the NYPD. For his
actions that day, Patrolman Paul received Department Recognition. He was awarded a Commendation Medal for his service.
Ptl Carl Kuhn, 122 Pct NYPD Photo
This incident led to changes in the NYPD. The lack of emergency services on Staten Island was an obvious fact as well as the difficulties in command and control
of the various elements of the NYPD in such an isolated borough. The opening of the Verrazano Bridge in late 1964 created the land link to Brooklyn that was sorely needed. Changes in the command
structure of the NYPD created what were then called “Area Commands”. Staten Island Area Command would lead to
a unique command that would enable the Area Commander to become a virtual “Chief of Police”
. All police elements would be under his direct supervision. For the first time, a Patrol Borough Commander would have the detective squads,
emergency service unit, Highway Unit, Communications Unit, and other functions under one command. The obvious advantage to this idea would be that the Patrol Commander would have Unity of Command.
The Staten Island Area Command
was a great place to experiment with new ideas in policing due to the fact that there
were only three patrol precincts. The unity of command would also enable communications to be enhanced. All units
would be on the same police frequency. Every patrol unit as well as support services could monitor on-going police
incidents on the same radio frequency. The local Communications Unit worked out of the 2nd floor of the 120th Precinct Stationhouse in the “St. George Precinct”.
This ended with the adoption of the co-called “911 System” by the NYPD. The computerized radio dispatching(CAD)
would then be set up in the old police headquarters building at 240 Centre Street in Manhattan. Still, the CB cops who worked in the 120th Precinct
soon found themselves in the new building. This was due to the need for cops who knew the local street names on Staten Island. Ultimately, when they built One
Police Plaza, the CB Unit would relocate to the new NYPD headquarters building. But in 1960, those changes would be in the future.
No medal or other forms of recognition attenuates the effects that patrol cops must endure when they deal with such horror.
Today, the effects of trauma are well known. Post Traumatic Stress is a factor that police managers must be deal with.
The value of Critical Incident Stress Debriefings and Defusing sessions for first responders is now a vital part of emergency
management. There was no such trauma counseling for cops and firefighters in those years. Many retired cops still carry
the emotional scars resulting from the violence and death that they met during their careers. The attack on the World Trade
Center was a large scale incident, but cops deal with death and destruction every day of their lives.
The creation of a separate command for Staten Island Area led to the uniting of the hybrid unit entited: “HESSI”. The Staten Island ESU Truck 5 would be merged with Staten Island Highway Unit into one command. The members of the
Command would be quartered in the New Dorp Precinct. They shared the same facilities and as time went on, oftentimes
due to lack of personnel, members of the Highway Unit would be used for ESU duty and serve with ESU members in
responding to emergency service calls for service. Operation of the equipment such as the hurst tool, cutting tools, and other technical duties required training of those same highway officers. As the Duty Captain for Patrol Borough Staten Island, I would find myself at such jobs with these cops and grew to respect them all.
Changes again have come to the NYPD and the Patrol Borough Commander of Staten Island no longer has command and control of all units under his/her command. HESSI
no longer exists. The Emergency Service Division has reclaimed Truck 5
under its wing. I am sure this has been done for good reasons. For now, HESSI is memory. But for the
members of the NYPD who served in HESSI, they will never forget their experiences. The First Annual Reunion for HESSI
was held on April 20, 2008. I was happy when Sergeant Peter McPolin, NYPD retired informed me of the date and invited me to attend.
L to R: Hank Cartmell, with Lt. Jeremiah Clark, CO, HESSI (ret)
Hessi Roster for the year 1986
L to R: Pete McPolin, Steve Toth, Ray Palma
L to R: Jim LaPiedra, Mike Quintero, Sal Margarella
L to R: Jim Aanonsen, Irene Aanonsen, and John Lyke
LtoR: John Lyke, Manny Lopez, Tom Sullivan with wife Anne Marie_______
LtoR: Rear standing: Jim LaPiedra, Seated: Donna DeNatale, Terry Castris , John Lyke, Manny Lopez
LtoR: Chuck Billings, Mike Gallagher, Kevin Ottino, Scott Waldburger
L to R: Jim Barile, Chris Ryan, Sean McConville, Mike Quintero, Andy Cappa
L to R: Harry Cucco, George Croake, Bob Prather
L to R: Ray Smith, Luddy Rafano
L to R: Pete McPolin, John Lyke, Reggie Harrison
Pete McPolin, and Jamie Cregin helped organized the Reunion.
SEE YOU NEXT YEAR!
Some of the stories that I have written include members of HESSI:
LEAP INTO ETERNITY
GUN BATTLE AT CLOSE QUARTERS
BATTLE AT THE BATTERY TUNNEL
DEATH IN THE INFERNO
THE NYPD AND CRISIS MANAGEMENT
WORLD TRADE CENTER BOMBING
NYPD EMERGENCY SERVICE STORIES FROM ARCHIVES:
THE FIGHT AGAINST TIME
NO WAY TO TREAT A LADY
NEAR DEATH EXPERIENCE
Copyright 2008 Edward D Reuss
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