Saturday, August 3, 2019

The "Wingfoot Express" dirigible (zeppelin) crashed in Chicago's Loop on July 21, 1919.

On July 21, 1919, the Goodyear, Tire & Rubber Company's "Wingfoot Express" burned and crashed into the Illinois Trust and Savings Bank building. The next day, a Negro swimmer was murdered at a southside beach which triggered the 1919 Chicago Race Riots that shook the country.
The crowd scene at Illinois State Bank after the Wingfoot Express caught fire.
Eleven persons were killed and twenty-eight injured when a gigantic dirigible on its test flight caught fire and fell 1,200 feet, crashing through the skylight of the Illinois Trust and Savings Bank building at Jackson Boulevard and LaSalle Street, shortly before 5 o'clock in the afternoon.

Nine of the dead were employees of the bank, trapped and burned to death in a withering rain of fire caused by the explosion of the balloon's gasoline tanks as they hit the floor of the bank rotunda, where over 150 bookkeepers and clerks, nearly all girls, were working.
Wingfoot Express departing from Grant Park.
The blimp, known as the "Wing Foot Express" and owned by the Goodyear, Tire and Rubber Company of Akron, Ohio, had been flying above the city intermittently for several hours when the accident occurred. Thousands witnessed it.

At about 1,200 feet above the bank, a flame was shot out from the gasbag near the aircraft's center. The crowds gathered on the streets to watch the flight and witnessed the zeppelin buckle and quiver as it started on its fatal plunge.

Four of its five occupants, wearing parachutes, jumped. The fifth, unable to get away, was caught in the flaming gasbag and burned and crushed to death on the bank roof. Another's parachute burst into flames and followed the balloon through the skylight, the man's body crashing to the bank floor. A third man broke both legs as he landed, and the other two experienced balloonists landed on a roof and one on LaSalle street. One of these escaped injuries, and the other was only slightly hurt.
There was nothing to warn the hundreds of the institution of the coming tragedy. A shadow passed over the marble rotunda, where 150 were busy, and a terrifying crash followed. The bank's closing hour for patrons had passed, but the clerks were still at work in various departments.
According to the survivors, it seemed as if the entire bank was on fire. Breaking through the iron supports holding the glass overhead, the fuselage of the blimp, with two heavy rotary engines and two gasoline tanks, cashed to the floor.

Instantly the tanks exploded, scattering a wave of flaming gasoline over the workers for a radius of fifty feet. A panic ensued. There were only two exits through which they could leave the wire cage surrounding the rotunda.

Men and girls with flaming clothing fought their way through the exits. Girls on the second floor ran screaming at the window, and several jumped into the street.

In an instant, the marble rotunda was deserted except for the dead, whose bodies were buried under the flaming mass, licked to a white heat by the gasoline blaze, and the dying, who crawled feebly away from the scorching fire, their clothes burning off.

The intense heat made rescue work impossible until after the fire department arrived and a four-eleven alarm call. Thirty minutes passed before the bodies under the craft could be dragged out, and some were burned beyond recognition.

Meanwhile, ambulances from every hospital and undertaking establishment near the city's center came, and the police threw a cordon about the place. Many people were found to have been seriously cut by the shower of glass that preceded the explosion.

The rescue work was watched by a crowd of 20,000 on LaSalle street and Jackson boulevard, while more had a good vantage point in nearby buildings. The cause of the fire, which brought the flaming gasbag down, is unknown. None of the crew could ascribe a definite reason. Several theories were offered, however. One was that a spark from the rotary motors, a dangerous type to be carried under the inflammable gasbag, set the gas afire. The second issue was that the gas-babbler was overcharged, and the sun's rays caused it to expand and burst. The fire that followed sparked in the gasoline lines to the motors. The third theory was that the gasbag had been smoldering since the dirigible left Grant Park ten minutes before the accident. Witnesses to the blimp's takeoff said that a mechanic had applied a blow torch to the propellers just before they started to burn off the oil from the propeller bearings.

It was intended to charge the bag with a mixture of hydrogen gas, which is not inflammable. It was conjectured, however, that a quantity of oxygen became mixed in the charging process, rendering a highly explosive combination.

When J. A. Boettner, an employee of the rubber company and pilot of the craft, saw the flicker of flame, he yelled a warning to the other passengers and jumped from the fuselage.

Carl Weaver, the mechanic, followed suit. His parachute caught fire, dropping like a shot through the skylight, his mangled body falling on the marble floor as the balloon engines and gas tanks struck. Earl H. Davenport, a publicity man for White City Amusement Park, tried to jump, but his parachute was held by the flaming bag, and he dropped with the wreck to the bank roof, where his body was found by firemen.

Milton G. Norton, a photographer for a morning newspaper, alighted on LaSalle street, but both of his legs were broken, and he received Internal injuries of a severe nature. Harry' Wacker, a mechanic, was slightly injured, and Boettner alighted safely.

The other dead were crushed and burned in the rotunda of the bank. The body of one, believed to have been that of Miss Evelyn Meyers, was caught under one of the heavy rotary engines and could not be dislodged until the fire was put out.

The central portion of the bank was wrecked. The fire spread through all of the desks in the rotunda and rendered them a huge charred pile.

Where the gasbag lit and burned, the roof caught fire, and it was nearly an hour before firemen could quench the flames.
Interior of the bank after Winged Foot Express crash.
The extent of the damage to the bank through the burning of its records is not known. It was declared by an official, however, that a package of $50,000 in government bonds was burned up. There was no attempt to loot the place, and tellers returned with the firemen to lock up thousands of dollars of currency in the huge vaults untouched by the blaze.

The bank set up triage to help bandage the dozens of employees with severe cuts first and to overcome the confusion. 

The stories of the crash were myriad. Yet practically all agreed. That of Miss Harriet Messinger, the telephone operator, who sat tending to her switch hoard on the balcony above the rotunda, was typical:
“There was a shadow and I looked up to the roof. Instantly a crash sent the glass flying on the heads of those below,” she said."

"The girls hesitated, many of them stunned by the glass or too frightened to run. Then the huge machine came through. It seemed to fill the bank with the flame that searched out every corner. The heavy part with its engines and tanks fell to the floor and exploded."

“I ran to a window and called for help. I started to jump, but no one made a move to catch me, so I ran to the street safely.”
Orris Herb of the Goodyear Tire and Rubber Company, a member of the crew, said:
"I was standing in Grant park ‘watching the machine when I saw it ‘take fire. The blaze seemed to start at the top of the bag, which makes the mystery of the accident more deep. Four of the five occupants jumped over the side. The fifth man, Davenport, did not jump. He went to his death with the dirigible."
Boettner, the pilot, was taken to the Chief of Police Garrity when he landed, practically unhurt. He told the following story:
"As we neared State street I felt the machine buckle and there was a tremor throughout the fusilage. I knew something had happened and saw the flames licking the bag. All over the top,’ I shouted. ‘Jump, or you’ll burn alive. I jumped. I landed the falling bag, but was not burned."
The accident occurred on the third flight of the new dirigible. At 9 a.m., it left the hangar at White City Amusement Park and made its way to Grant Park. Shortly after noon, a trial flight was made safely with several passengers. The third and fatal takeoff came after 4 p.m.

They had cruised intermittently over the city for several hours, the center of attention of hundreds of thousands of eyes when the accident happened.

According to E.E. Helm, publicity agent for the rubber company, W.C. Young, manager of the blimp, had asked the photographer and Davenport not to ride with them on the trip because the machine was a new one and untried.

"But they insisted on going, so we took them along," he said.

The machine, he said, was the property of the rubber company. It was a sister ship of the "A-4," which was in the army's service. It was 186 feet long and about fifty wide and carried a capable of holding ten persons, a crew of two and eight passengers.

It was the company's intention to later establish a passenger service," said Helm. "Our hangars at Akron are still In the hands of the army, and to make flights, we decided to use the hangars at White City Amusement Park, which are the best in the mid-west for our use.

"We shipped the balloon down three weeks ago. Our first flight was on July 21. The craft was not considered safe until it had been thoroughly tested, which was the flight's purpose. They left White City Amusement Park yesterday morning, flew around until noon and landed at Grant Park. Some army officers were passengers during the morning, and our intention was not to take anyone with us on the later flight. Still, the photographer and Mr. Davenport pleaded to go against our warnings, and we allowed them.

"The men at Grant Park who the flight said there was no sign of trouble until the flames broke out."

The scenes at the Central Undertaking company, the Iroquois Memorial, and the St. Luke's hospital were extremely pathetic. Here hundreds of relatives of persons employed in the bank and their friends gathered to find out whether their loved ones were dead or alive.

Dozens of injured employees returned to the bank to aid the uninjured in salvaging the institution's records. As soon as the fire abated, they dragged hundreds of books and letter files from the smoking pile.

These were taken to a point in the bank's entrance and piled up to be guarded by policemen. Water from the fire hoses also did considerable damage to the records.

Despite the damage to the bank, the loss was not more than $15,000, according to John J. Mitchell, president of the bank. He was reticent in discussing the property loss given the death of his employees, with all of whom he was acquainted with. He said the bank would be open as usual today.

"I don't see how we can blame anyone for this most regrettable accident," he said. "It was. one of those things that no one could have foreseen or forestalled."

"I am deeply hurt at the death of my employees, all of whom I have known personally. The property lost to the bank is negligible in the face of the loss of life. I should say that $15,000 will replace the equipment.

The Illinois Trust and Savings Bank, thanks to the courageous work of many of the employees, who remained on the job, and others who came back to work last night in bandages, will be open for business as usual today." The bank, one of the most beautiful in the city, was ruined throughout its center, while the portions protected by the balcony were untouched. The marble pillars supporting the roof and surrounding the rotunda were cracked and broken by the heat, and the marble floors were smashed and caved in where the engines fell.

Herbert A. Byfield, one of the owners of White City Amusement Park, denied Any liability on the part of the White City Amusement Park company for the accident. He gave a personal tribute to Davenport, who lost his life.

"The Goodyear company's airship, the 'Wing Foot Express,' was assembled at the Hangar building at White City Amusement Park. This historic building was the only available hangar in the United States when war broke out. In it, the Goodyear company built the first two airships used by Uncle Sam for the war and fourteen kite balloons.

With the war over, the White City Amusement Park planned to tear down the hangar and build a picnic grove. This building lying idle, was still the only airship hangar in Chicago and also was used by the Goodyear company in its ill-fated but earnest effort to stimulate and promote the airship industry in America.

Earl Davenport, publicity director, left White City Amusement Park while the airship was still circling overhead and was taken to Grant Park. What happened after that is unknown to the White City Amusement Park, but apparently, he entered the car as an invited guest of the Goodyear managers.

This is a terrible blow to me, as Earl Davenport was one of my closest friends years before he came to White City Amusement Park. He was the best-natured man and had the kindest heart of anyone I have ever known.

The White City Amusement Park was not a partner to the Goodyear company and was expressly released from all liability."

Compiled by Dr. Neil Gale, Ph.D.

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