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"Never Forget": Remembering an Earlier 9/11
Quick Note to the Reader:
“Never Forget.” It is a phrase synonymous with the attacks on the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001. Yet in its irony, this very notion has paved the way to overlook the anniversaries of its less remembered Sep. 11 counterparts throughout American history. A select few examples include:
S.S. Central America Sinking (1857)
Unnamed Hurricane (1883)
Inchulva Grounding & Hurricane (1903)
9th Ave & 53rd St. Train Derailment (1905).
Bergen Tunnel/Erie Railroad Cave-in (1910)
Satilla River Bridge Collapse (1922)
Miami Hurricane (1926)
St. Louis Train Collision (1950)
Hurricane Edna (1954)
Hurricane Karla (1961)
Hurricane Iniki (1992)
This September 11 will also mark the 81st anniversary (1942) of the Curtiss Wright Plant Disaster in Buffalo, New York which led to the deaths of 14 people and injuries to another 46. The Curtiss-Wright Aircraft Manufacturing Plant, which had been working in over-drive to support the World War effort, was conveniently located just West of the Buffalo Municipal Airport (now International Airport) runway (Kahn, 2023) which the company used to test and flight certify its aircraft.
On this particular afternoon, test pilot Jack Bertrand Purnell had taken off in a P-40 Warhawk - one of the 9,902 that would ultimately be produced at the facility (WikiMapia, n.d.) - and climbed in excess of 20,000 feet (NFPA, 1942). While putting the aircraft through its paces, an engine fire broke out. Perhaps due to the classified nature of military warplanes at the time, little is publicly known about the exact ignition source. Unable to extinguish the flames of the engulfed the cockpit, Purnell flew towards unpopulated land and ejected (NFPA, 1942). Inexplicably, the now diving pilot-less aircraft reversed direction for two miles and made several loops before careening into the roof of the plant (Buffalo Evening News, 1942a); instantly sending flaming debris across the concrete floor and engulfing the work area in a fireball.
Upon hearing the crash, nearby plant workers who had been on lunch break leapt into action; each doing their part to rescue (and recover) their coworkers. With flaming gasoline and debris across the concrete floor, some grabbed fire extinguishers while others put blankets around their heads and raced into the flames and smoke to carry the injured to safety (Buffalo Evening News, 1942a). The plant engineer on duty was quick to start two 1500 g.p.m. pumps that were soon in operation (NFPA, 1942). The plants civilian first aid, firefighting and auxiliary police units immediately went into action and arrived on scene in just a few minutes (Buffalo Evening News, 1942b).
It is estimated that the plant’s trained fire crews had the blaze under control by 15 minutes and out by 30 (NFPA, 1942); preventing its spread and minimizing damage to the facility - which was evident as it went back to normal operations within hours.
There were so many injured that personal vehicles were used to transport victims to hospitals, which were advised of the tragedy by General Manager William Davey in advance of patient arrival (Buffalo Evening News, 1942a). This timely coordination and communication prompted off-duty nurses to return, emergency room breakout teams prepared for a mass casualty incident, blood and plasma were reserved and retrieved and other critical administrative systems activated before a single patient arrived at the designated hospitals (Buffalo Evening News, 1942c). The Curtiss Wright Corporation Airplane Division quickly notified workers’ families and the auxiliary police units blocked off intersections for efficient patient transport before jurisdictional authorities even reached the scene (Buffalo Evening News, 1942b). It was clockwork - and it saved lives.
Within hours of the aircraft hitting the Curtiss Wright building, nearby hospitals and the Red Cross were swamped by locals looking to donate blood (Buffalo Evening News, 1942c & The Curtiss Wright Corporation, 1942) that many were turned away due to facility storage limitations. In all, it is estimated that within 2 days, more than 500 pints had been donated (Buffalo Courier Express, 1942).
Lessons for Workplace Preparedness
A successful initiative requires an envisioned end goal. With the month of September being officially recognized as National Preparedness Month, it is difficult to picture an event that epitomizes and represents this message more than the Curtiss Wright Disaster; especially when it comes to workplace preparedness.
It is greatly unfortunate that this event has not been further explored academically. Totally encompassed by the collective wartime mentality of “keep pushing on,” this is by no means surprising. No one likely thought to revisit it. In the grand scheme of things happening at the time, it had not become even a blip on the radar.
Because of the period in which this disaster occurred, little is known about what the specific collaborative systems and processes looked like and how they were each able to effortlessly meld into such a smooth operation. Those insights, if discovered, could become invaluable in shaping the EM sector today, which has struggled with interorganizational coordination and communication.
But here is what we do know:
Despite little pre-disaster interorganizational training between groups, the response was nearly impeccable
Employees knew fire extinguisher, alarm and hose locations and operation
Personnel at all levels of management acted quickly and decisively in their assigned roles
Communication was swift and effective (both internally and externally)
Everyone knew where to go, what posts to attend and what their responsibilities were including electricians, mechanics, shift supervisors, shippers, welders, timekeepers, riggers, engineers, painters, telephone operators, air raid crews and even office management and receptionists
First aid personnel were well trained, knowledgeable, and resourceful
Auxiliary units were quick to respond and organize effective patient transport mechanisms
Work areas had been designed and maintained for hazard mitigation
Fire drills and evacuations were regularly practiced
Everyone, including the injured, helped out however they could
Recovery operations went into full swing as soon as possible resulting in a fast return to plant operation
“Some of them [employees] had had some degree of training. Others were entirely volunteer groups and countless of them were individual workers. But they all worked like they had never done anything else in their lives… There was not the slightest sign of panic or fear or even excitement. It was beautifully done.” (The Curtiss-Wright Corporation, 1942a)
There exists perhaps no better article that exemplifies this preparedness than the one headlined “All Volunteer Air Raid Precaution Units…” as seen below.
Lessons for Aviation-Proximate Communities
While aviation accidents have been steadily declining since 1997 (National Safety Council, 2021) no neighborhood or community is truly safe from such crashes; let alone those of commercial and military origin. In fact, these types of events are so common, a truly comprehensive incident database does not appear to exist. Not even the FAA or NTSB seemingly keep track of such factors.
The Bureau of Aircraft Accidents Archives is a fantastic resource but only records accidents involving planes capable of carrying 6 or more persons. As of writing, this database records 59 accidents of such aircraft that crashed into “city terrain” in the United States since 9/11/2001. Incidents involving aircraft that do not meet this 6-passenger qualification are a dime-a-dozen and regularly break a thousand accidents per year (Bureau of Transportation Statistics, n.d.). It is unfortunate that this data is not easily recallable and therefore nearly impossible to effectively utilize or study; especially when it comes to community preparedness, emergency management and critical infrastructure protection.
Much like the Curtiss Wright Disaster, the majority of aviation-infrastructure accidents occur on or near airports and airfields since the most accident-prone flight phase is landing (Attaccalite et al., 2019; NTSB, 2022). The surrounding land, despite being convenient, is prone to additional and often overlooked risks to critical infrastructure and community lifelines.
Teterboro Airport in New Jersey, although serving mostly private and general aviation planes is amongst the nation’s busiest civil airport (NJDEP, 2020) and makes for a prime example since it is situated squarely in the middle of houses and community infrastructure - much like how Central Park is to Manhattan (which is only approximately 10 miles to the West).
The following synopses represent just a few examples of aviation-borne threats to the people of Teterboro (and by association, Manhattan):
February 2, 2005: A Bombardier CL-600 fails to takeoff, runs through the airport perimeter fence and across the US-46 highway (6 lanes) before hitting a warehouse next to a high school; which to this day still sits near the end of the runway (NTSB, 2006; Google Maps, n.d.).
October 11, 2006: A Cirrus SR20 took off from Teterboro and crashed into the 40th and 41st floors of a Manhattan apartment building shortly after (Barron, 2007).
May 15, 2017: A Learjet 35A, while on approach to the runway, impacted a commercial building and parking lot. (NTSB, n.d.)
General aviation accidents pose unique hazards and challenges that may become overlooked. The FAA has even gone so far as to create a course that highlights the additional warranted considerations for first responders, emergency managers and the general public alike:
The General Aviation Manufacturers Association (GAMA) has also published aircraft manufacturer-specific resources for first responders:
A United People
The parallels of unity between the Curtiss-Wright Disaster and the national tragedy of Sep 11, 2001 can be found almost anywhere one looks. As the Curtiss Wright-er newspaper put it “This is a Story of Americans When Disaster Strikes” (The Curtiss-Wright Corporation, 1942c).
These excerpts speak for themselves:
“Gone were the distinctions of class and color and clan and creed. The sweeper saved his boss. The foreman salvaged his apprentice… One union member walked in fire to save the member of another. The company executive stood ankle-deep at a nozzle held also by the toil-worn hands of a laborer. The Catholic carried the Protestant to First Aid. The newcomer worked with the old-timer. The immigrant carried out the native.
Differences, dialects, denominations mattered none... Freed from trivial jealousies, prejudices, passions, and partisan inclination which so often color a man's normal activities; washed clean of the dirt and filth and soil which accumulate as we walk the daily ways of life, that which was left to do the job that had to be done was clean and inspiring together.
Out of the wreckage rose the specter of death, but out of that same wreckage rose…inherent bravery, inherent unselfishness, inherent concern for fellowmen, a picture not seen enough these days.” (The Curtiss-Wright Corporation, 1942b)
This disaster was unpredictable, as many are. What makes it unique is that no stone was left unturned. Everything that could be done in the response phase – was – and with great success. It is difficult to find a more ideal case to be studied and analyzed; and yet, all that is seemingly left of its memory are archived newspapers, a few webpages and online news reports, and a site marker that reads “These Dead Shall Not Have Died In Vain” (which has since been relocated to a Buffalo Airport parking lot).
In an effort to “Never Forget” I have compiled a repository of information associated with the Curtiss-Wright Disaster so that anyone looking to study and analyze this event (and its nearly perfect response) will have a good place to start:
Jack H. Boyer, Paul Chase, Cecil Clark, James E. Collins, Lester F. Glenn, Salvatore Palmeri, Carlson M. Rauh, Francis Ryan, Norman Savage, Joseph J. Sciolino, Samuel Shalala, Martin Till, Laverne Voelker, Frank Warda
Attaccalite, L., Di Mascio, P., Loprencipe, G., & Pandolfi, C. (2012). Risk Assessment Around Airport. Procedia - Social and Behavioral Sciences, 53, 851–860. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.sbspro.2012.09.934
Barron, J. (2007, October 9). A year later, building hit by cory lidle’s plane is almost whole. The New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/2007/10/09/nyregion/09lidle.html
Buffalo Courier Express. (1942, September 13). Hundreds Rush to Donate Blood to Curtiss Victims: Red Cross Service Is Unable to Handle Rush; Other Communities Join in Boosting Supply. Buffalo Currier Express (Vol. 108; No. 55), 1. https://www.newspapers.com/image/976403588
Buffalo Evening News. (1942a, September 12). Agents to Determine if Sabotage Caused Curtiss Plant Deaths: Plane on Fire as it Crashes Through Roof After Pilot Bails Out; War Workers Risk Lives to Save Comrades. Buffalo Evening News (Vol. 124; No. 130), 1, 7. https://www.newspapers.com/image/841423196 & https://www.newspapers.com/image/841423238
Buffalo Evening News. (1942b, September 12). Auxiliary Corps Praised For Help Given In Disaster: Cheektowaga Police Chief Mobilizes Force Quickly After Curtiss Accident. Buffalo Evening News (Vol. 124; No. 130), 7. https://www.newspapers.com/image/841423238
Buffalo Evening News. (1942c, September 12). Hospitals Perform Dramas Of Mercy After Catastrophe: “Men in White” Work at Top Speed as Victims’ Relatives Wait Anxiously. Buffalo Evening News (Vol. 124; No. 130), 7. https://www.newspapers.com/image/841423238
Bureau of Transportation Statistics. (n.d.). U.S. General Aviation Safety Data. United States Department of Transportation. https://www.bts.gov/content/us-general-aviationa-safety-data
Google Maps. (n.d.). Bergen County Technical High School. Google Maps. https://www.google.com/maps/place/Bergen+County+Technical+Schoolsemail@example.com,-74.054485,2234m/data=!3m1!1e3!4m6!3m5!1s0x89c2f9bf49c5eb33:0x53192ce219964449!8m2!3d40.8604517!4d-74.054485!16zL20vMDhnbG1k?entry=ttu
Kahn, B. (2023). Personal Research and Combination Analysis: https://buffalohistory.smugmug.com/Collections-by-Subject/Sattlers-Aerials/i-cbx3634/A ; https://www.loc.gov/resource/g3804cm.g3804cm_g058321939/?sp=31&st=image&r=0.041,0.404,0.877,0.411,0 ; https://ngmdb.usgs.gov/img4/ht_icons/overlay/NY/NY_Lancaster_130213_1965_24000_geo.jpg ; https://www.buffalohistorygazette.net/2010/09/september-11-1942-tragedy-at-curtiss.html
Malloy, J. M. (n.d.). September 11, 1942—Tragedy at curtiss-wright. The Buffalo History Gazette. https://www.buffalohistorygazette.net/2010/09/september-11-1942-tragedy-at-curtiss.html
National Safety Council. (2021). Airplane Crashes. Safety Topics. https://injuryfacts.nsc.org/home-and-community/safety-topics/airplane-crashes/
NFPA. (1942). NFPA Research Library and Archive. NFPA Quarterly Volume 36 Issue 02, 137–138. https://nfpa.access.preservica.com/uncategorized/IO_1b8cf3a8-4775-42fb-a36a-462d3eba823a/
NJDEP. New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection. (2020). AIR QUALITY EVALUATION OF TETERBORO AIRPORT TETERBORO, NEW JERSEY. https://www.nj.gov/dep/dsr/teterboro/
NTSB. (n.d.). Departure From Controlled Flight Trans-Pacific Air Charter, LLC Learjet 35A. NTSB Investigations . https://www.ntsb.gov/investigations/Pages/CEN17MA183.aspx
NTSB. (2006). Runway Overrun and Collision Platinum Jet Management, LLC Bombardier Challenger CL-600-1A11, N370V, Teterboro, New Jersey February 2, 2005 (Accident Report NTSB/AAR-06/04 PB2007-910401). National Transportation Safety Board. https://www.ntsb.gov/investigations/AccidentReports/Reports/AAR0604.pdf
NTSB. (2022). General aviation accident dashboard: 2012-2021. https://www.ntsb.gov/safety/data/Pages/GeneralAviationDashboard.aspx
The Curtiss Wright Corporation. (1942, September 16). Blood Bank Capacity Was Taxed By Curtiss Donors. The Curtiss Wright-Er (Vol. 2; No. 10), 7. https://iiif-prod.nypl.org/index.php?id=5048593&t=v
The Curtiss-Wright Corporation. (1942a, September 16). Former Navy Man Lauds Volunteers. The Curtiss Wright-Er (Vol. 2; No. 10), 2. https://iiif-prod.nypl.org/index.php?id=5048588&t=v
The Curtiss-Wright Corporation. (1942b, September 16). The Porcelain of Human Clay. The Curtiss Wright-Er (Vol. 2; No. 10), 2. https://iiif-prod.nypl.org/index.php?id=5048588&t=v
The Curtiss-Wright Corporation. (1942c, September 16). Workers At Airport Plant Are Victims of Disaster. The Curtiss Wright-Er (Vol. 2; No. 10), 1, 3. https://iiif-prod.nypl.org/index.php?id=5048587&t=g
Vaughan, G. W., Wright, B. S., Jansen, P. N., & Davey, W. (1942, September 16). A Message. The Curtiss Wright-Er (Vol. 2; No. 10), 1. https://iiif-prod.nypl.org/index.php?id=5048587&t=g
Walsh, G. E. (1942). Fatal Crash at Airplane Plant. NFPA Quarterly , 36(2), 137–138. https://nfpa.access.preservica.com/uncategorized/IO_1b8cf3a8-4775-42fb-a36a-462d3eba823a/
WikiMapia. (n.d.). WikiMapia. http://wikimapia.org/21573712/Curtiss-Wright-Plant-2-Westinghouse-Electric-Plant-Site