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Greene History Notes: Aftermath of an August Storm, Part II

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A fragment from the Sikorsky aircraft that crashed in Coxsackie on August 10, 1936.
June 11, 2019 11:33 am Updated: June 11, 2019 11:34 am

 

This week I am pleased to present Part II of Jonathan Palmer’s guest column about a plane crash that occurred on the Swartout Farm in the Town of Coxsackie on August 10, 1936. In Part I he set the stage by detailing the weather conditions that day, the scene at the crash site and a bit of history on S-38 and S-39 Sikorsky aircraft. Today Palmer continues his story with details about the two men who lost their lives and the aftermath.

Aftermath of an August Storm, Part II

By Jonathan Palmer

William P. Howell, 36 years old, was a veteran pilot familiar with his plane. Born three years before the Wright Brothers flew at Kittyhawk, Howell was a member of a generation of young men and women who felt called to the new and dangerous frontier of manned flight.

He had joined the ranks of professional civilian aviators 15 years prior, probably cutting his teeth behind the controls of a surplus plane from the First World War. Howell was flying before parachutes were a common safety feature, a notion that upped the stakes and excitement for many aviation pioneers, but a fact that also made the profession exceptionally unforgiving.

In his 15 years among the clouds Howell had already made a name for himself as one of the pilots who flew out to meet the Hindenburg over the Atlantic when it arrived on the coast of the United States on its maiden voyage. Likewise, he had ferried photographers out to document the arrival of the Normandie and Queen Mary, superstars of the fashionable transatlantic passenger lines, on their first arrivals in New York Harbor. Testifying to his value as a veteran pilot, William Howell was paid $150 a week to fly newspapers up the Hudson Valley in August 1936.

Lewis Brunnell was the second half of the two-man team necessary to keep a Sikorsky S-39 aloft. Unlike motorists at the wheel of automobiles, pilots did not have the luxury of being able to pull over to the roadside when mechanical issues arose in their planes. The flight mechanic, who put his life in the hands of a skilled pilot, likewise held the life of the pilot in his hands as he kept an eye on the humming radial engine, control surfaces, and straining cables that kept their plane in the clouds.

It may be said the only person more possessive of an aircraft than the pilot flying it is the mechanic who keeps it running, and Brunnell was no exception. Unfortunately for William Howell and Lewis Brunnell there was little they could do about the weather, and their schedule needed to be kept lest they disrupt the intricate system that got news delivered on time.

In the steady hand of County Coroner William E. Brady the names of Lewis Brunnell and William Howell were added to the grim register of William C. Brady’s Sons Funeral Home. The Swartouts had phoned for help minutes after they discovered the plane’s wreckage, summoning Sgt. Conway of the state police from Catskill along with Coroners Brady and Atkinson and members of the Sheriff’s Department. Both pilot and mechanic were found at their stations in the crumpled cockpit of the plane, their bodies bearing the marks of an instantaneous death delivered by a high-speed impact.

William Brady was a dignified and amicable man, a demeanor he inherited from his father and fellow Funeral Director William C. Brady. A veteran of the First World War and longtime business partner with his father in their funeral home, Mr. Brady was accustomed to death in all its forms. When his best friend and fellow veteran Louis Tremmel passed away unexpectedly William had taken in Louis’ children and raised them as his own, a final gesture to his friend and comrade.

Now, in the capacity of Coroner, Mr. Brady was an attendant to the passing of both friends and strangers alike across much of Athens, Coxsackie, and New Baltimore. Despite his admittedly grim resume, the wreck he arrived to examine on the Swartout farm was one of a most unusual nature, and may have been the only plane crash he ever reported to during his long career. William Brady’s stepson Bill Tremmel had no idea where his stepfather was going when Mr. Brady left the house at 10 that night. Yet even at his young age Bill was already accustomed to the difficult hours and responsibilities of his stepfather’s line of work.

The scene on the Swartout Farm became increasingly chaotic as the night wore on and the rain fell. After the crash had been surveyed the State Police and Sheriff’s Department immediately set about dispersing souvenir hunters who had arrived to scrounge bits of wreckage. About an hour after the crash William Howell’s wife arrived in a car, having driven herself from Albany Airport where she had been awaiting the overdue plane. Consumed with grief, her presence and the subsequent arrival of Howell’s father dampened the spirits of all in attendance as they gathered remains and made notes to prepare for the inevitable investigation.

It was not an easy night, and the Recorder’s reporter took pains to relate the theatrically tragic course of events as they unfolded.

A day later in the morgue of his funeral parlor Mr. Brady made the necessary preparations to return the remains of William Howell and Louis Brunnell to their homes on Long Island.

Everything was paid for by Thomas J. Reynolds, an editor for the New York American. Two embalmed bodies totaled sixty dollars, transporting each by Auto Hearse to East Elmwood, New York was one hundred dollars, and several long-distance telephone calls added an extra six dollars and eighty cents to the bill. Mr. Brady noted that the funeral records were made in triplicate, necessary for such an unusual case, and within four days the entire account was settled and done. All that remained were muddy ruts in the Swartout’s field where trucks had hauled away the wreckage and permanent damage to two trees that had been clipped by the plane on its descent.

We dug this story up 83 years later because of an odd happenstance. It seems the State Police and Sheriff’s Department had their hands full on the night of August 10, 1936. So full, in fact, that one of the souvenir hunters that showed up to scrounge a piece of the plane indeed made off with a coveted fragment. While attention was focused elsewhere, someone managed to cut a perfect strip of canvas from the crumpled tail section of Howell and Brunnell’s S-39 as it lay in the mud one hundred yards from the nearest section of the wreck.

The unnamed looter cut the fragment into a pennant and detailed the silverpainted canvas with a black border and remarkable rendition of a Sikorsky S-38. On the back, written with a typewriter, were dates and details about the origin of this strange fragment of fabric. Were it not for the kind donation of this grisly souvenir, it is likely this event would have remained quietly forgotten.

Reach columnist David Dorpfeld at gchistorian@gmail.com or visit him on Facebook at “Greene County Historian.”