The Red July of 1919
On July 21, 1919 the Wingfoot Express burned and crashed into the Illinois Trust and Savings Bank building. The very next day a child was murdered coming home after playing in a nearby school yard. Just five days later, the murderer confesses to the senseless crime and on that same day, a black swimmer was murdered at a south side beach which triggered race riots that shook the country.
July 21—Wingfoot Express | July 22—The Janet Wilkinson Murder | July 27—Race Riots
Chicago Tribune, July 22, 1919
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, Jackson boulevard and La Salle street, shortly before 5 o’clock yesterday afternoon.
Nine of the dead were employes 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.
The blimp, known as the “Wing Foot” express and owned by the Goodyear, Tire and Rubber company. of Akron, O., had been flying above the city intermittently for several hours when the accident occurred. Thousands witnessed it.
The crowd scene at Illinois State Bank after the Wingfoot Express caught fire.
Spurt of Flame Starts Tragedy.
When approximately 1,200 feet above the bank a spurt of flame was seen to shoot from the gas bag near the center of the aircraft The crowds gathered on the streets to watch the flight saw the great machine 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 gas bag 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 one on a roof and one in La Salle street. One of these escaped injuries and the other was only slightly hurt
There was nothing to warn the hundreds of 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.
It seemed, according to the survivors, as if the entire bank was on fire. Breaking through the iron supports holding the glass overhead, the fusilage of the blimp, with two heavy rotary engines and two gasoline tanks, ashed to the floor.
Wingfoot Express departing from Grant Park
Tanks Explode Among Bank Workmen
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 which surrounded the rotunda.
Men and girls with clothing flaming fought their way through the exits. Girls on the second floor ran screaming to the window and several jumped to 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 an a four-eleven alarm call. It was thirty minutes before the bodies under the craft s could be dragged cut Some were burned beyond recognition-
Meanwhile ambulances from every hospital and undertaking establishment near the center of the city came, and the police threw a cordon about the place. Many were found to have been more or less seriously cut by the shower of glass which preceded the explosion.
20,000 Watch Work of Rescue.
The rescue work was watched by a crowd of 20,000 an La Salle street and Jackson boulevard, while more thousands took places of vantage on the buildings nearby.
The cause of the fire which brought the flaming gas bag plunging down is not known. 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 inflammable gas bag, set the gas afire. Another was that the was overcharged and the sun s rays caused it to expand emd burst, the fire following the contact of the gas with sparks in the gas with sparks to the motors.
A third theory was that the gas bag had been smoldering since the dirigible left Grant park ten minutes previous to the accident. Witnesses to the blimp s takeoff said that a mechanic had applied a blow torch to the propellers just before they were 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 employe 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 fusilage.
Carl Weaver, mechanician, followed suit. His parachute caught fire and -he dropped 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, publicity man -for White City, 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, photographer for a morning newspaper, alighted on La Salle street, but both of his legs were broken and he received Internal injuries of a serious nature. Harry ‘Wacker, mechanician, was slightly injured, and Boettner alighted safely.
The others 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 the fire was put out.
The central portion of the bank was wrecked. Fire spread through all of the desks in the rotunda and rendered them a huge charred pile.
Where the gas bag lit and burned the roof caught fire, and it was nearly an hour before firemen could quench the flames.
Interior of bank after Winged Foot Express crash.
$50,000 Bonds Reported Lost.
The extent of the damage to th 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 bond was burned up.
There was no attempt to loot the place, and tellers returned with the firemen to lock up of thousands of dollars of currency in the huge vaults, untouched by the blaze.
For hours after the crash the institution took the aspect of a hospital as dozens of employees, many of then girls, with severe cuts and after their hurts were bandaged to help straighten out the confusion.
Girl Operator’s Story.
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 glass or too frightened to run. Then the huge machine came through. It seemed to fill the bank with 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.”
Member of Crew Talks.
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. 40ise by one 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 of Chief of Police Garrity when be 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.
Two Flights Successful.
The accident occurred on the third flight of the new dirigible. At 9 a.m. it left the hangar at White City and made its way to Grant park. Shortly after noon a trial flight was made safely width several passengers. The third and fatal takeoff came after 4 p.m.
They had cruised intermittently over the city for several hours, the cynosure 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 is in the service of the army. It was 186 feet long and about fifty wide and carried a capable of holding ten persons, a crew of two and eight passengers.
Planned Passenger Service.
It was the intention of the com- pany to establish later 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, which are the best in the middle west Lva lable for our use.
“We shipped the balloon down three weeks ago. Our first flight was yesterday. The craft was not considered safe until it had been thoroughly tested and that was the purpose of yesterday’s flight. They left White City yesterday morning, flew around until noon and landed at Grant park. There had been some army officers as passengers during the morning and it was our intention not to take any one with us on the later flight, but the photographer and Mr. Davenport pleaded to go, against our warnings, and we allowed them.
“The men at Grant Park who the flight said that there was no intimation of trouble until the flames broke out.”
Relatires Seek Victims.
The scenes at the Central Undertaking company and the Iroquois Memorial and the St. Luke’s hospital were pathetic to the extreme. 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 employes returned to the bank to aid the uninjured in salvaging the records of the institution. As soon as the fire was abated, they dragged hundreds of books and letter files from the smoking pile.
These were taken to a point in the entrance of the bank and piled up to be guarded by policemen. Water from the fire hoses also did considerable damage to the records.
Dexpite 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 in view of the death of his employees with all of whom he was acquainted. He said the bank will be open as usual today.
“I don’t see how we can blame any one 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 really negligible in the face of the loss of life. I should say that $15,000 will replace the equipment
Bank to Be Open Today.
Our bank, thanks to the courageous work of many of the. employees, who remained on the job, and, others whe 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. The marble floors were smashed and caved in where the engines fell.
White City Owner Explains.
Herbert A. Byfleld, one of the owners of White City, denied Any liability on the part of the White City company for the accident. He gave a persona] tribute to Davenport who lost his ‘life He said:
- The Goodyear company’s airship the ‘Wing Foot Express,’, was assembled at the Hangar building at White City. This building is historic as being 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 as well.
With the war over, the White City 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 while the airship was still circling overhead, and was taken to Grant park. What happened after that is unknown to the White City, but apparently he entered the car as an invited guest of the Goodyear managers.
This is a terrible blow to me personally, as Earl Davenport was one of my closest friends years before he came to White City. He was the best natured man and had the kindest heart of anyone I have ever known. – .
The White City was not a partner to the Goodyear company and was expressly released from all-liability.
Diagram and composite photograph of the Wingfoot disaster.
The Columns of the Illinois Trust & Savings Bank, Chicago Special Memorial Issue: 3 July 1919
THE GREAT TRAGEDY
Out of the clear sky came a mass of flaming wreckage which crashed through the big skylight of this bank, bringing death and injury into the Illinois Trust family. A big dirigible sailing over the loop caught fire a thousand feet in the air and came rushing like a flaming comet, down to earth. The finger of fate had selected the skylight of this building among the hundreds of flat roofs surrounding, on which the dirigible was to strike.
This great tragedy resulted in the death of ten of the bank’s people and the injury of twenty-seven others, leaving a never to be forgotten shadow over the entire institution. Employes and officers were busy closing up the day’s business on July 21st. It had been a big day. Monday almost invariably brings more business than other days of the week. Many of the employes already were on their way home. Those still at work were putting the final touches on the day’s work and would have departed for home very shortly.
Suddenly, as if the whole roof was caving in, there came a big crash and down through the skylight descended the huge, fiery blimp with its twisted iron and heavy mechanism, past the balcony and down to the first floor upon the heads of employes who were working underneath the large skylight.
Chicago Tribune, July 23, 1919
Chicago Tribune, July 22, 1919
Six hours after the dirigible fell in the loop yesterday afternoon, the city council took action to regulate flying over the city. It adopted a resolution directing the corporation counsel to draw up an ordinance regulating the operation of both heavier-than-air and lighter-than-air machines.
Ald. A. J. Cermak introduced the resolution. So affected were the aldermen by the disaster of the afternoon that at first a motion was made aiming at legislation to prohibit all flying over the city. The prohibition clause was objected by Ald. Guernsey and others, however, and Ald. Cermak consented to modify his resolution so that, as adopted, it read “regulate” instead of “prohibit.”
Guernsey Bars Escape.
“It is unnecessary to state reasons for the adoption of this resolution,: said Ald. Cermak, regarding the original resolution. “This accident shows we must stop flying over this city sooner or later, and we had better do it sooner. Now is the best time. I hope to see the ordinance before the council at its next meeting, so the council can take action before it adjourns for the summer.”
“Some regulation is necessary, but don’t forget aviation is here to stay,” said Ald. Guernsey. “The question of air ownership is a big one, as yet unsettled. I doubt whether the corporation council could draw an ordinance preventing preventing flying which would be legal. I think flying over Chicago should not be prohibited, and I am an interested party, inasmuch as, had it not been for this council meeting, I would have been in the blimp that fell today.”
Ald. Joseph Smith said a Chicago taxicab company is preparing to use aircraft in connection with its taxi service, and suggested the council license such craft, both because the city needs revenue badly and because a regulating ordinance could best be enforced through a license system.
Here’s the Resolution.
The resolution follows:
- Whereas, The City of Chicago has this day received a tragic demonstration of the necessity of regulation of air traffic in the fall of the dirigible, inflicting death and injury among citizens below as well as to passengers of the airship; and.
Whereas, The city council, through a commission, is now considering the best means of permanent regulation, and, whereas, it is long since recognized in Europe as a dangerous policy to permit aircraft to cruise at will over populated zones;
Be it resolved, That the city council instruct the corporation council to draft an ordinance which, pending the adoption of lighter-than-air and heavier-than-air machines over the city.
Be it further resolved, That the ordinance be referred to the aviation commission, and that said commission report the same to the city council for passage as early as possible.
Photographed by Roy Knabenshue
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