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Blimp Crashes in N.Y. on Midtown Building : Aviation: Crew of 2 is rescued from smashed gondola and treated for minor injuries. Some residents shaken.

July 05, 1993|JOHN J. GOLDMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

NEW YORK — As horrified spectators watched and its crew desperately jettisoned ballast, a blimp crashed Sunday onto the roof of a mid-Manhattan apartment building.

Both the pilot and co-pilot were rescued from the 160-foot-long dirigible's smashed gondola and hospitalized with minor injuries.

The blimp's rudder and the fabric remains of its tail section hung limply over the front of the seven-story, red-brick building like a huge Salvador Dali painting. The blimp's fuel tank, containing about 100 gallons of gasoline, did not rupture.

There were no injuries in the building, but some residents in suddenly darkened apartments were shaken.

A 21-month-old child who recently underwent brain surgery was hospitalized as a precaution after the crash frightened her mother.

"There was a huge hole in the side of the blimp, and it was fluttering down, and whoever was there was throwing sandbags right out the window," said Belinda Sinclair, an eyewitness.

"The pilot tried to land in a school (yard), but it just wasn't possible. He landed on top of the roof. I can just imagine the feelings and the expressions they must have had when they were coming down. They lingered up there for a very long time, at least 10 minutes," she said.

Police checked reports that the airship had been struck by sniper fire, but they proved to be unfounded after the pilot was questioned by detectives in the hospital.

He told them the blimp developed mechanical trouble and a piece of the craft broke off, puncturing its skin.

One of the crewmen told police they intentionally landed on the roof of the building after deciding against trying to crash-land in the river.

The pilot, who was identified as Lee Cermak of Eugene, Ore., and his co-pilot, Pat Russell, radioed "May Day" as they struggled to land the stricken craft, which was leaking helium from a huge hole in its side. Cermak was hospitalized in fair condition, and Russell was scheduled for possible release Sunday night, according to a spokeswoman at St. Luke's-Roosevelt Hospital.

Their distress message at 3:15 p.m. EDT set off a massive rescue operation as more than a score of emergency vehicles converged on the area near the Hudson River.

Firefighters with an engine parked near the 79th Street Boat Basin and the crew of an ambulance at the same location saw the dirigible struggling to remain aloft and radioed a warning of the crash.

"There was smoke pouring out of it. It was deflated," said James Q. Sullivan, the city Emergency Medical Service technician who radioed the warning.

"I got on the radio and told the dispatcher that: 'You better be ready in Midtown' because I was not sure where it was going to go down," he said.

"It was about 1,000 feet up when I noticed he was losing control of it. It was at an odd angle all the way. He was doing his best to stabilize it. It was almost nose up, and it started to twist a little bit back and forth," Sullivan said. "The back of the dirigible was completely deflated. It was just hanging down. There was no rudder, no control back there. There was a huge amount of white puffy smoke pouring out."

The blimp hit the top of the building on West 53rd Street, crashing onto a gray asphalt roof near a small, plastic swimming pool. The gondola, the size of a station wagon, hit between two huge ventilating fans.

Rescuers found the gondola lying on its side, and the pilot and co-pilot trapped inside. Both men were conscious and warned paramedics that fuel might be leaking, officials said.

They wanted to get out of the gondola quickly and were concerned that rescuers could be injured, fire officials at the scene said.

The blimp, promoting the Pizza Hut restaurant chain, crashed just hours before New York's Fourth of July fireworks celebration, which this year included heightened security due to the June 24 discovery of an alleged terrorist plot to blow up the United Nations, two Hudson River tunnels and the federal building containing the New York field office of the FBI.

In anticipation of huge crowds gathered along the river to watch the fireworks, police summoned extra officers to the crash scene.

A Pizza Hut spokesman said the airship Bigfoot, owned by US-LTA of Tillamook, Ore., and leased to the restaurant corporation, was on its way from Boston when it crashed.

Plans called for the $4-million blimp to fly over New York during the fireworks show.

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