Today’s Flammable Yet Truly Morbid Fact!
Eight minutes before the close of the business day on July 21, 1919, a great shadow passed over the marble rotunda of the Illinois Trust and Savings Bank in downtown Chicago. Inside the bank, 150 tellers and clerks were balancing their cash drawers and were otherwise engaged in the frantic rush to go home.
Overhead, a 153-foot dirigible powered by 95,000 cubic feet of flammable hydrogen hovered over the central business district, when suddenly the craft buckled and plunged to earth. The fuselage of the Wing Foot tore through the iron supports holding the glass skylight in pace. The twin LaRhone engines and the two gasoline tanks crashed to the floor of the bank, splashing fuel on the bank employees standing within a fifty-foot radius.
Eyewitnesses described the unfolding chaos and panic as a “blast furnace raining hell” upon the unsuspecting. The rotunda was instantly consumed in flames, trapping the tellers behind their wire cages and cutting off their routes of escape. Screaming stenographers, their long skirts on fire, raced toward the exits, but walls of fire blocked their path. Some were burned beyond recognition.
Employees trapped on the second floor of the building plunged to their deaths in a desperate attempt to flee the inferno. The intense heat made rescue work virtually impossible, and the immense site of the curious crowd outside the bank impeded efforts of firemen, ambulance drivers, and undertakers to reach the stricken and the dead.
The death ship was owned by the Goodyear Company of Akron, Ohio, and was engaged in a test and demonstration flight, designed to promote the advantages of lighter-than-air travel to the public, when fate intervened. The craft had taken off from a hangar at the White City Amusement Park at Sixty-Third Street and South Park Avenue shortly before 9:00 a.m. and had bobbed lazily across the afternoon skies 1,200 feet above Grant Park, on up to Diversey Harbor.
The Wing Foot was piloted by Jack Boettner, a veteran of forty-two dirigible flights, who blamed static electricity and a rush of air from the propellers, which fanned the exhaust flames against the bag. Boettner and his four passengers parachuted off the blimp, but only the pilot managed to escape serious injury or death.
Though never officially charged with criminal negligence, Boettner absorbed much criticism and personal blame after repeatedly contradicting himself during the inquest chaired by future Illinois governor Henry Horner. The Goodyear Company agreed to arbitrate all claims through Horner’s three-member committee. The bank chipped in $1,000 for each victim’s family and reopened for business the very next day after the disaster. Such was Chicago in its busy, formative years, cranking along at a breathless breakneck speed, never pausing, never looking back.
Five days after the blimp plummeted to the floor of the bank, a race riot erupted on the city’s South Side, crowding this story off the front page so the daily newspapers But the Wing Foot tragedy, and others like it involving lighter-than-air craft, underscored the need for proper safety precautions and, more important, foreshadowed the end of an era. With the crash of the Hindenburg at Lake Hurst, New Jersey in 1937, the curtain closed on the dirigible as a means of commercial travel.
The Wing Foot disaster is all but forgotten. No plaque or historical marker commemotating this horrible human calamity can be found on the walls of the Bank of America Building. Business, after all must go on.
Culled from: Return to the Scene of the Crime
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Thanks to Anna for the link.