ELIZABETH, NJ – Author Judy Blume chose her hometown of Elizabeth to launch her latest book, In the Unlikely Event, and she was welcomed home tonight by a standing room only crowd in the Council Chambers at City Hall.
Although a work of fiction, the book focuses on three, actual events that occurred in the 1950’s: the plane crashes that happened December 16, 1951, January 22, 1952, and February 11, 1952. For Blume, then a teenager, the experiences were bewildering. The boys in her class attributed the accidents to aliens and flying saucers, while “The smart girls thought communists and sabotage,” said Blume.
Eventually, Blume put it behind and went on to write Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret, It’s Not the end of the World, and Wifey, and more than 20 others. It wasn’t until she attended the 2009 Key West Literary Seminar and heard another writer talk about the 1950’s that the memories started to flood back. She recalled, “The 1950’s! Oh my God, I have a story that took place in the ‘50’s, and I have to write it. I had to write this book.”
She spent four years pouring over newspaper accounts as research, then five more years writing. The result is a book riddled with familiar names and places to Elizabeth residents. Said Mayor J. Christian Bollwage, “We are thrilled that you launched in Elizabeth.” Replied Blume, “We had to start in Elizabeth. Otherwise, it wouldn’t be fair.”
The best-selling author seemed as happy to be here as her audience was to have her. She spoke of walking down Shelley Avenue and going to the Green Lane Farm where Kean University now sits. When she mentioned attending School 21, she was greeted by cheers, and more at the mention of Battin, then an all-girls high school.
But Blume was not the only one to bring memories that night. Elizabeth resident Ralph Abbate brought clippings about the second crash on Williamson Street that killed a grandmother he never got to know. Blume herself got teary eyed when she introduced retired Elizabeth fire fighter Charles Swody, who was present at all three crashes. “Your daughter said she would bring you, and I am so touched that you came,” she said.
Swody, who served from 1943 to 1986, clearly remembered the crashes, of which only one, the last, had survivors. The first, a Miami Airlines flight to Tampa, hit a brick industrial building and landed in the Elizabeth River. He also recalled a foggy day in January when an American Airlines flight headed to Syracuse came down on Williamson Street, barely missing Battin, which had let out an hour before, and St. Mary of the Assumption School. The pilot, Thomas Reid, lived in the neighborhood, and his wife, then pregnant with their third child, heard the crash that made her a widow. Swody spent days searching for bodies and recovered that of former Secretary of War Robert Patterson.
The next month, a National Airlines plane that was headed to Miami crashed into a four-story apartment building on Salem Avenue, broke apart with sections landing in the athletic field of Janet Memorial Home. “The wing of the plane was in the front of the apartment house and the tail was in the back by the orphanage,” he said.
After answering questions from the crowd, Blume sat down to sign copies of the book she was "born to write.”