Death From Above: Airliners Collide Above New York City, December 1960

Aftermath of air disaster, Brooklyn, December 1960.
Bob Gomel—The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images
Aftermath of air disaster, Brooklyn, December 1960.
Bob Gomel

On December 16, 1960, two airliners collided above New York City, raining debris, cargo, and bodies down on the boroughs on Brooklyn and Staten Island. More than five decades later, the devastation of that day — captured by several LIFE photographers in the hours after the disaster — still shocks.

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Fog and sleet limited visibility in the skies above New York when Trans World Airlines Flight 266, with 44 people aboard, and United Flight 826, a Douglas DC-8 jetliner carrying 84 people, crossed paths, and collided. Wreckage from the TWA plane landed mostly on the isolated Miller Army Airfield in Staten Island. The destroyed United plane proved far more catastrophic, slamming into Brooklyn’s densely populated Park Slope neighborhood. Falling wreckage killed six people on the ground, including two men selling Christmas trees. A stream of jet fuel touched off a seven-alarm fire, destroying 10 buildings.

All told, 134 people were killed: 128 passengers and crew members on the planes and six in Brooklyn.

While there have, of course, been air disasters resulting in far more deaths than the “Park Slope Plane Crash,” as it came to be called, in the years since December 1960, the destruction wrought by that mid-air collision was shattering. It also served as a sad foreshadowing of even worse airline-related horrors that, with the rapid global growth of air travel, were virtually guaranteed to come.

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