Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Rockland remembers 40-year-old plane crash: Boeing 727-251, Northwest Orient Airlines, N274US

Bill Murphy, a local aviation enthusiast, shows off a piece of metal that he recovered from the Dec. 1, 1974, plane crash site in Harriman State Park.
 (Photo: Akiko Matsuda/The Journal News)

On a cold, rainy December night 40 years ago, tones rang out in the Hillcrest Fire Department's Mount Ivy station.

Gordon Wren Jr., then captain of the department, listened to the alarming radio message from 44 Control, the call center responsible for dispatching fire departments.

"They said that they were contacted by control people in the Kennedy Airport," said Wren, now director of Rockland County Fire and Emergency Services. "The airport control lost radar contact with a commercial jetliner somewhere in Mount Ivy-Stony Point area."

The Dec. 1, 1974, crash of Northwest Orient Airline Boeing 727 in Harriman State Park in Rockland killed three crew members. No passengers were on board, as the aircraft was heading from New York to Buffalo to pick up the Baltimore Colts football team. The incident left a lasting impression on some local residents because of its "what ifs." If the plane was fully loaded, or if the crash occurred several seconds sooner, it could have been a major disaster, they say. In the wake of the 40th anniversary, a plan to remember the accident is in the works.

The flight, designated as NW6231, departed John F. Kennedy International Airport at 7:14 p.m. without apparent issue. But only 10 minutes later, at 7:24 p.m., a crew member transmitted a mayday message.

"We're out of control, descending through 20,000 feet," a crew member was heard on the radio addressing the New York air route traffic control center, according to the accident report by the National Transportation Safety Board.

In the next minute, the airplane continued a spiraling descent through the sky until it crashed into the woods in Harriman State Park. The accident site was later identified as 3.68 miles west of Thiells, or about a 30-second flight by a commercial airplane.

Volunteer firefighters with the Hillcrest, Thiells and Stony Point fire departments were told to standby while police searched for the crash site.

Wren said at some point during the night, a Palisades Interstate Park policeman located the wreckage in the park. Firefighters, including Wren, responded to the scene.

"I recall that it didn't come in like clipping the tops of the tree. This one just went straight into the ground, crashed like in full speed. ... It made a big hole in the ground," Wren said, referring to the NW6231. "It could've been a fully-loaded plane. If the crash was three or four miles sooner, the plane would have gone right into a populated area."

The accident investigation concluded that the crew members lost control of the aircraft because they failed to recognize the plane's stall condition. They solely relied on an erroneous airspeed reading from speed indicators, called pitot heads, even though they were blocked by ice and malfunctioning. The ice condition would have been prevented if the crew members activated the pitot head heaters, the report read.

Fearing another incident, Wren coordinated an extensive plane crash drill for firefighters in 1975 and in the 1990s, he said.

"It was such a close call. ... If it had gone down a few seconds sooner, it might've been right in the middle of condominiums in Mount Ivy, populated areas in New City, or West Haverstraw. A lot of people would've died," Wren said. "To this day, I still study a mental checklist of how to respond to a major plane crash."

Bill Murphy, a local aviation enthusiast, said he got interested in the incident years after it happened. He visited the site, just off the Long Path hiking trail near Breakneck Pond.

"I started looking around, and I started finding stuff," Murphy of Congers said, while showing off a metal piece that he found there. "It was a human tragedy. But fortunately, the crash happened before they picked up the whole football team."

Wren, who is also a trustee for the Historical Society of Rockland County, said he was hoping to install a memorial plaque at the crash site, in cooperation with the Historical Society of Palisades Interstate Park Region and the Palisades Interstate Park Commission.

Walter Luther, chairman of the Palisades Interstate Park historical society, said his trustees supported the idea.

"Mostly we focus on older histories," Luther said. "But this is history, too, so we're anxious to get involved and help out."

Luther, 71, said he clearly remembered the crash.

"Everyone was interested. It was a real tragedy," Luther said. "We were grateful that the Baltimore Colts were not on the plane."

The 1974 crash in Harriman State Park left a lasting impression in Rockland residents. In the wake of 40th anniversary, a plan to install a memorial plaque is in the pipeline. 


NTSB Identification: NYC75AN070 
Flight Purpose:  Ferry
Aircraft: BOEING 727, registration: N274US

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