For most of it's modern history, North Bergen has been a relatively quiet town. However, It is hard to say we are a sleepy, little town as we reside in the shadow of New York City. On November 8th, 1956, North Bergen was the site of an unimaginable catastrophe. An episode so surreal to the residents of town it is still discussed amongst some of the older residents as the worst juncture in the town's history.
In the age of digital and streaming services it is hard for most North Bergen residents to picture a 760 foot tall (roughly 80 stories), 420 ton steel tower in the middle of town. However, such was the reality upon the towers completion in the summer of 1949. The tower was built to serve WOR TV or better known today at MY 9. The company and it's partners purchased 30 lots bound by 72nd and 73rd Streets & Palisade and Bergenline Avenue. The property was purchased for $30,000, today estimated to be roughly $315,000. WOR TV choose North Bergen for it's site as it needed its transmission tower to be higher than the buildings of New York. The WOR Tower would serve as a link for the broadcasting company transmitting signals from New York City to Washington D.C. and vice versa. For nearly seven years the WOR Tower's bright red letters illuminated the skies over North Bergen, a symbol of the United States' technological progression in a post World War II world and for some time it stood as one of the largest man made structures in the world. But that would all change on a cloudy November afternoon in 1956.
The WOR Tower as seen from Riverview Drive inside James J. Braddock North Hudson County Park Courtesy of Lenny DiBrango At 12:51 pm on November 8th 1956 a watchman at the WOR Tower heard a booming sound and upon inspection found no damage to the tower itself. Unbeknownst to him was the tragedy unfolding only a few blocks away. The watchman had no idea a twin engine plane clipped it's left wing on the tower and crashed into an apartment house at 7805 Broadway. The pilot of the plane, William L. Cromley of Trafalgar, Indiana, became lost in the heavy overcast and showers that sat over North Bergen that day. Eyewitnesses reported that upon hitting the tower the plane spun out of control and spread debris across a several block area before crashing. Later reports found the Cromley was trying to reach North Hudson County Park for an emergency landing.
Needless to say the Woodcliff Section of North Bergen was thrust into chaos seconds after the plane struck the WOR Tower. The first responding official to the crash site was Hudson County Park Patrolman George Peterson. Peterson rushed into the crash site and made his way up to the 5th floor. There he rescued Samuel Phelps, whose apartment was directly struck by the crippled aircraft. Sadly however, Peterson could not reach Phelps' wife Harriet. Mrs. Phelps had jumped from her fifth floor window as the flames engulfed the apartment. Mrs. Etelle Pyne would also lose her life in the accident as the plane crashed into her fifth floor apartment as well. Stories Like Peterson, John Creutz, a Guttenberg ambulance driver ran into the building upon arrival. There he was able to rescue a wheelchair-bound resident. The first member of the North Bergen Police Department to arrive was Patrolmen James Sottarelli and Bernard Gaffney. Sottarelli gave this recount during an interview with the Jersey Journal, "First I saw the landing gear on the street, then through the smoke I saw a gaping hole in the building and I knew what had happened." Other residents in the building immediately moved to assist those in their building. Mrs. Eula Laus, Mrs. Laura Stamm and Mrs. Esther Fernhoff ran throughout the building banging on doors and ushered residents out of the burning building. Mrs. Fernhoff had to be physically removed by police as she refused to leave until everyone was out of the building. That November day was perhaps the longest day in North Bergen History. As resuces were underway, firefighters worked to stop the fuel feed fire from engulfing the entire building. Firefighters from across Northern Hudson County responded to the call for assitance. Those injured were Henry Hagerman, John Sinkinson and Michael Ziegler of North Bergen, Michael Ference of Guttenberg and Paul Nowatnick of West New York. Boulevard Patrolman William O'Niell was also hospitalized. During his recovery he stated, "Those firemen deserve a lot of credit," he continued to state the scene was unlike anything he had seen before with "debris two to three feet deep." The scene of the crash was just that and from photos that can be seenhere the sight was that of something from a war zone. The smell of burning fuel mixed with the charred remains from the pilot and his passenger, Russel S. Williams Sr of Indianapolis, were strewn through out the area. However, amongst the smoldering building and wreckage that lay throughout the neighborhood a new worry began to overcome those in the area. An unnerving idea began to flush the mind of town officials and residents of the area around the tower. The idea that at any moment the tower may give way and come crashing down on the quiet residential street of the Woodcliff Section of town. Mayor Angelo Sarubbi ordered the area be evacuated. Some 2,500 residents were forced from their homes. The homes between the streets of 71st & 75th Street and from Bergenline Avenue to Broadway were evacuated. Gene Scanlon of the Jersey Journal describe the vacated neighborhood as a "ghost town." Mayor Herman Klien of Guttenberg also called for evacuations, removing several hundred Guttenberg residents from the North Bergen-Guttenberg boarder. North Bergen police stood guard along a perimeter to stop anyone from entering the area, however buses would slow and onlookers would gather to view the crippled tower. What prompted this was a 10 foot long piece of steel flew three blocks upon initial impact damaging the home of Michael Grebelja who lived on 75th Street between Hudson and Palisade Avenues. Deconstruction of the tower began within a few days of the accident. Mayor Sarubbi had set a two week deadline on November 12th for the completion of the work. During this time the family of the pilot wrote a letter to the North Bergen Police Department. "I hope the people of North Bergen will not hold it against my brother-in-law for what happened. He, too, was a well-liked man and if he could have avoided it, he would have. With all the hurt that was caused, we still are awfully sorry, and we are hurt, too."
The outcome of that tragic day is something North Bergen residents should know of. The what if and could haves are the stuff of nightmares considering November 8, 1956 fell on a Friday. A day in which students would have been at both Robert Fulton School and at the Immaculate Heart of Mary. It is a miracle only two residents were lost that day, yet still ill-fated. The scares of that fateful day can still be seen on the facade of 7805 Broadway. An unsuspicious two toned brick work that to most people would be unnoticeable and some might not even give a second look. But now 62 years later, a plane crash on a Friday November afternoon is and will always be a part of our collective town history.
*Originally posted on The North Bergen Time Machine
Michael Maring is a history buff turned history teacher based out of North Bergen, NJ. He has lived in North Bergen his entire life and enjoys spreading the unique history about our town. His goal with North Bergen Time Machine is to spark interest in the history of North Bergen.