Saturday, April 21, 2012

Chicago Disasters: The Wingfoot Express

Note: This post is slightly out of order. I'm waiting on a new book to write a post about the sinking of the Eastland which I wanted to include before this one. I'll correct the order as soon as I can research the Eastland for a post.

The idea of blimps used for long distance travel was seen as an opportunity for Chicago to serve as a central hub of long distance travel with New York as just a pit stop along the way. Sadly there would soon be proof that this was would not happen.

Final Inspection of the Blimp Found it to Be Ready for Sailing

On Monday July 22nd, the newly constructed blimp, Wingfoot Express  made its first flight over the city. The blimp would have taken a more round about route avoiding the major downtown area but passenger William G. Norton, a newspaper photographer asked the pilot to deviate from the planned route and fly over the Loop instead so that he could take aerial photographs. Boettner agreed, although to fly experimental aircraft over the requested area was a serious compromise of public safety -- a dangerous gamble on this date in which destiny would not be in favor of this dirigible. Many witnesses were watching from fire escapes and roofs and saw the blimp catch fire.  Irwin A. Phillips later testified that "I saw a little black spot above the equator line on the bag, and then a yellow flame broke out. Then the flame spread up and down and on both sides. I saw the men jump and I saw the bag fall. When it passed from my view the rear end of the bag was (still) inflated." He did not witness the complete disaster, only the beginning of the end.

The aircraft caught fire, buckled and fell downward crashing into the glass roof of the Illinois Trust and Bank building. Girls working in the upper floor of the bank building died as the engines of the blimp crashed into the building. A shower of fire, molten glass, burning gasoline and hydrogen, and flying steel rained into the building. Thirteen people died and twenty-six were injured. Bank employees on the lower floor of the building were trapped behind teller counters and ran to escape the raining fire. As is often the irony of disasters, in five more minutes the employees of the bank would have been safely on their way home.

Two passengers on the blimp died when the parachutes provided to them caught fire. White City publicity manager Earl Davenport was trapped on the blimp and died there. Those from the blimp who survived the collision were lucky to escape wearing  parachutes that did not catch fire. Photographer Norton who had asked for the deviation from the blimp's planned route was severely injured when he tried to jump while holding his photography equipment and supplies. Until his death in the hospital he continued to ask if his pictures had survived. They had not.

The First National Bank of Illinois After the Crash

Debris from the Wingfoot Express Blimp

Wives and families of the injured and dead were in agony as they heard about the tragedy, identified the bodies of their loved ones and visited their injured family members in the hospitals. Widows of the men who had died were hysterical and collapsed at the realization of their husbands' deaths. Female employees of the bank who were in the midst of the explosion had horrifying stories to tell of how they escaped the fire.

Katherine Bruch's description, was "All I can say is, I thought the end of the world had come. Everything around me seemed on fire. I was lying on the floor, I thought I might just as well stay there and burn. Then I saw a girl running, and I jumped up and ran, too. I got out, but I have not clear recollection how I did."

Maybelle Morey told a reporter, "I was working in the bond department. I was in the front part of the office and I heard something flash. I thought they were taking pictures. Then boom! came the big explosion, and the whole place seemed in flames...I had to jump out of the window."

The bank called on unemployed laborers to work through the night making repairs to the part of the building where public business was conducted and opened at its usual time the next morning with many injured employees present to deal with customers.

All people associated with the flight of the blimp that day were arrested long enough to be interrogated. The pilot, Jack Boettner and the project director W.C. Young remained in police custody. Boettner admitted that he had never flown a blimp with the experimental rotary engines installed on the Wingfoot, and that he was aware of possible problems in the construction and operation of the blimp. W.C. Young admitted that he had no knowledge of engine technology and had given orders only for the blimp to be constructed as quickly as possible.

Colonel Joseph C. Morrow gave testimony in favor of the defendants based on his experiences as a passenger on the previous flight of the Wingfoot Express.

Representatives of Goodyear (the builders of the ship) came forward to say that Boettner and all other members of the crew of blimp would now cooperate completely and answer any questions posed to them during the investigation. Goodyear also promised to pay the expenses of all those who suffered injuries in the crash. Other expert witnesses called to determine the cause of the crash had as many guesses as can be imagined as to why the blimp caught fire, which put the prosecution in a weak position.

Benjamin Lipser superintendent of the Chicago Air Mail service spoke at the inquest claiming that he had spoken to Engineer Wacker in the hospital, and that Wacker had told him many negative claims about the ship. His testimony included that the blimp had not behaved well on its first trip when it did not fly over the city. According to Lipser, Wacker had said that on that flight the engines on the blimp had thrown off oil and sparks, and that there was not water ballast in the ship. In further testimony he reported that a passenger had been piloting the ship, and that Boettner had kept yelling at the passenger when it caught on fire, Captain Boettner had been the first to parachute out of it. The courtroom and even the juries rose up condemning him as a liar and perjurer to which he replied that he was not an expert witness but was only reporting what Wacker had told him. Those in the courtroom railed against him again he quoted Wacker as saying a passenger was piloting the ship during its trip over the city, and that Captain Boettner shouted, "Too much gas! Too much air! This isn't right!" just before the ship caught fire. Order was finally restored in the court, and Goodyear's attorney insisted that Wacker would live long enough to be interviewed by the coroner who would get the actual story from him.

Boettner testified next denying that what Lipser had said was true. According to Boettner, he never saw the engines misbehaving and he was the last to jump from the blimp.

During the trial, Marcus Callopy (an employee of the First National Bank) and Edward G. Norton, a photographer on board the blimp died in the hospital bringing the final death toll in the bank to thirteen.

In sharp contrast to his response to the Eastland sinking back in 1915, the mayor payed little attention to the crash of the Wingfoot Express. He was instead deeply involved in trying to head off the possible transit strike...after which he took most members of the city's government to the West for a wild weekend of cowboy games and entertainment. He did not return for the events surrounding the Wingfoot disaster during the weekend because they were all having so much fun out west.

Citizens were appalled that yet another disaster in the country had taken place, with preventative measures only put into place after the occurrence of the tragedy. Chicago's city council worked into the night to debate banning all flight over the city, but produced instead a resolution to regulate flight over the urban area.

A newspaper of the time printed this list of the dead:

Injured in the crash:

Goodyear, the manufacturer of the blimp hoped to receive several rewards for its design. They did. In the 1913 National Convention of Flying Death Machines, they won in the categories of “Most Likely to Explode”, “Greatest Liability”, “Most Likely to Catch Fire and Impale a Bank”, and “Best Color Scheme”.

Over time, the dream of flying dirigibles would be crushed except for those like the Goodyear blimp that floats above sports arenas. Dirigibles were replaced by early versions of the airplanes we know today.

Books used for this article:

City of Scoundrels: The Twelve Days of Disaster That Gave Birth to Modern Chicago. Available on Amazon. I could not have written this post without the excellent material included in this book.

Websites used for this article:

The Crash of the Wingfoot Express, Chicago, IL, July 21st, 1919

New York Times Archives

Jake Uveges' article for the Examiner 

Deaths, Disturbances, Disasters and Disorders in Chicago 

The Chicago History Journal Chicago, 1919: Wingfoot, Race Riots, Strikes, and Strikeouts
Chicago, 1919: Wingfoot, Race Riots, Strikes, and Strikeouts

Additional recommended reading:
Gary Krist is working on a volume in his American Colossus series: AMERICAN COLOSSUS: An Epic of Chicago.It's not available yet, but keep checking for it.

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