It’s a cold winter day. A plane is in distress. Moments after take-off, it’s left wing separates from the body of the plane. The pilot and crew are unable to regain control of the aircraft. There is nothing that can be done. The plane is flying over a major city. It crash lands over a small island, used as the city’s prison. People are screaming. Those on fire are rolling around in the snow. A flight attendant, with severe burns on her face and head, ignores her own distress to help the passengers in her care. Of the 91 passengers on board, 20 are dead. The other 71 are injured on an island surrounded by inmates and a handful of guards.
Does this sound like a short synopsis for a novel? Well it happened in New York City on February 1, 1957. A Northeastern airlines plane that left LaGuardia airport at 6 PM crashed on Rikers Island minutes after taking-off.
The last place most of us would want to find ourselves is injured and trapped in a prison on an island. They were more fortunate than they realized, all things considered. The Department of Corrections was quick to react. They implemented the prison’s Disaster Control Plan and utilized all the resources the island had to offer. Led by the Assistant Deputy Warden, all resources – including correctional officers, chaplains, doctors, nurses, civilians, and the island’s inmates – were utilized.
Survivors were triaged and helped either to the island’s hospital or the visiting room where they received first aid as they waited to be transported to city hospitals. In many cases, aide came in the form of prisoners; these social pariahs offered comfort and hope when it was needed most.
NYC is considered a rough town, with indifferent people, but in times of tragedy, New Yorkers come together and rise to the occasion. The inmates on Rikers were criminals, but they were humans and, more importantly, they were New Yorkers.
Of the 57 inmates who took part in the rescue work during the crash, 46 were serving indefinite terms (no time was assigned to their sentences; their conduct while incarcerated would determine time to be served). Of the 46, 30 were released and 16 received a reduction of their sentences. Governor Averell Harriman, the governor of New York State at the time, commuted the sentences of the remaining 11 men.
The actions of Department of Correction’s and its decision to utilize prisoners brought additional recognition to holding facilities and prisons. The crash was dramatized in an Armstrong Circle Theatre (now NBC) television program on May 14, 1957. The portrayal of the crash opened the public’s eyes to the good work being done in Rikers Island’s rehabilitation program. The training and education of inmates by the Department of Corrections was highlighted.
The Department of Corrections and the inmates weren’t the only ones to receive recognition for their actions that day. Mayor Robert F. Wagner presented the department’s highest award, The Medal of Honor, to Assistant Deputy Warden James C. Harrison who had command of Rikers on the evening of February 1st. Department Meritorious Awards were presented by the mayor to 43 other employees, (Chaplains, correction officers. civilians, doctors, nurses, etc.) who were on hand that fateful evening and came to the rescue of the 71 survivors.
This tale is inspiring. It’s one of the reasons I love history.
For more information, you can Google Rikers Island Plane Crash, or visit the following sites: