ELIZABETH, NJ — Judy Mandel stood yards away from where an American Airlines plane en route to Newark from Syracuse, N.Y., fell out of the sky and struck the building where her family was living Jan. 22, 1952.
Mandel, who grew up in Cranford and now lives in Connecticut, was invited to take part in a commemoration of the crash Thursday, Sept. 20, only the second time she has been able to muster the courage to return to the site of the crash that killed her sister, Donna, and left another sister, Linda, badly burned.
About 30 people gathered at the corner of Williamson and South streets to speak about their connections to the crash, the second of three airplane crashes in Elizabeth during a 58-day period spanning 1951 to 1952. The event was hosted by Barbara Field, owner of the Magic Fountain Ice Cream and Grill and a billboard was present at the site that had been demolished by the plane crash. The shop that would eventually become the popular Magic Fountain was built on the corner in 1954.
In front of the Magic Fountain, Mayor J. Christian Bollwage spoke about how the legacy of the crash still reverberates through the town almost 67 years later.
Eugene Sullivan, a retired Elizabeth firefighter, told how he survived the crash. The ground floor of the three-story building at 310 Williamson St. was home to an old-style candy store, and Sullivan and some buddies from St. Mary’s were playing songs on the jukebox when the building suddenly began to shake.
Mandel said the commemoration was surprisingly cathartic, as was writing about her family’s experiences in her new book, “Replacement Child.” The New York Times best-seller retraces the events of that day and their effect on Mandel, who was born after the crash in 1954. While researching the book, she stumbled upon a term “replacement child,” coined in the 1960s by psychologists Albert and Barbara Cain to refer to a child conceived shortly after parents have lost another child. Armed with a clinical definition, so much suddenly became clear to Mandel, who had struggled for decades to understand why her father had been distant and her mother had been overprotective.
“I can almost hear my mother telling me I should not be here,” Mandel said. “I can hear her say, ‘Why are you coming back here? I tried to get you out of here.’ I mean, that’s a strange thing to say, but I know it was a painful place.
“As that replacement, I was supposed to be away from it and protected from it and shielded from it. So, they didn’t want me to be any part of it. Of course, that’s impossible because it’s kind of embedded in you. It’s in your DNA.”
After her parents died, Mandel became more interested in the crash and how it affected her family. Her mother had left her several legal pads filled with personal recollections about the crash, almost as if she was trying to write the story. Mandel thought she was finishing it for her mother, then she thought she was writing Donna’s story. At some point, she realized she was writing her own story. “Replacement Child” addresses the family’s grief and the heart-wrenching details of the plane crash that killed all 23 on board and seven more on the ground. Albert Mandel had been tending to his jewelry store when the plane struck the front of the building at 3:45 p.m. His wife, Florence, was home with the children when suddenly there was a booming noise, and flames and debris everywhere she turned.
Florence Mandel was disoriented at first, but managed to guide her mother to safety, then returned to the building to find Donna’s friend, Sheila, who had been visiting. Sheila was on fire, so she threw a rug around her and brought her to safety. When she returned to the building again, she found Donna pinned under some debris.
But Donna yelled to her mother to get the baby, so she scooped up Linda and brought her out of the house. Before Florence Mandel could rush back in, some bystanders grabbed her and wouldn’t let her return, and from outside, she could hear Donna calling for help. A moment later, the building collapsed. The cries for help ceased and family’s fate was forever changed.
“My mom was a hero,” Judy Mandel said. “She never spoke about it. I think she felt she didn’t save her other daughter. She didn’t save Donna. But we know if she had gone back into that building when she wanted to, I wouldn’t be here. She wouldn’t have made it. The floor collapsed right as she was trying to get back in. And they held her back.”
Sullivan said he shouldn’t be alive, either. He and seven friends were in the candy store, listening to “Kisses Sweeter Than Wine” by The Weavers on the jukebox when the building started to shake.
“You didn’t hear any plane engines,” Sullivan said. “You didn’t hear a plane. And then out of this back room was this flame … It was a big flash of light. Everything flew and God knows what happened. The next thing we know, we’re trying to make our way out. And we got out the front door and we ran right over there to the grass.”
Sullivan leaned forward in his chair and began to point at a black-and-white photo of the rubble left in the wake of the crash. He said there were 12 people inside the shop at the time and somehow all made it out and stood on the grass across the street. He remembers how Florence Mandel kept rushing back into the burning building to save her family, and remembers her holding Linda in the cold rain. He remembers the smell of the smoke and the chaos.
Countless times over the years he has said a prayer for those who died and has given thanks that his own life was spared.
“I’m a believer of second chances,” Sullivan said. “You picture if that plane crashed, say, two seconds earlier? It would have hit right here,” he said, referring to the ground floor of the building, “and I wouldn’t be here talking to you. By all rights I shouldn’t be here talking to you.”