In the late afternoon of August 10, 1936 a storm of unusual intensity roared its way eastward over the Catskills in the fashion of nearly all weather in this region. For half an hour much of Greene County was blasted with exceedingly heavy rain, making it necessary for most households to switch their lights on early as the sky darkened and the temperature dropped nearly ten degrees. The thirty-minute deluge gave way to a howling wind which bent trees and tore at the shingles of homes and barns throughout the afternoon and evening. Unceasing lightning, intermittent hail, and waves of rain continued into the night “doing much for vegetation” in the practical coverage the Catskill Recorder provided farmers four days later.
By all indications Greene County residents had avoided disaster at the hands of this surprise storm. No barns had fallen, toppled trees were to be cut and seasoned for firewood, and crops across the county sprang to life despite what had otherwise been a hot and dry summer. The lightning had surprisingly caused no lasting harm, though it had tried its best to kill bank cashier Harry Emens in Cairo when a bolt struck nearby telephone wires while he was making a call. Likewise shocked but unharmed were twenty-five men at the County Farm who were nearly electrocuted when lightning hit a tree they were taking shelter near. Foreman William Dyce, who was the most seriously harmed, recovered his senses in a day and went back to work. All was not well however at the Swartout Farm, which lay on the road between Athens and Coxsackie. The morning of August 11 saw a line of police vehicles departing after what had been an unusually tragic and eventful night. Off in the Swartout’s field freshly turned soil spread across a thousand yards revealed bits of shattered wood, canvas, and mangled mechanical contrivances which a mere twelve hours before had been a symphony of engines and airframe en route from Long Island to Albany. Tattered fragments of newspaper lay sodden in the mud.
The business of getting printed news distributed fast and efficiently was an undertaking of monumental proportions in an age before interstate highways and overnight shipping. The newspaper empire of William Randolph Hearst, which printed papers in New York City, had a readership and distribution which extended across the northeast. Outdated news would not suit readers of Hearst newspapers, so the latest and fastest modes were employed to get the news where it needed to be. Notably, to get copies of the New York Mirror and New York American to Albany, Hearst employed aircraft which could make the run in roughly three hours from the metropolitan area to the state Capital. That was fast, even for the most discerning subscribers of those papers.
Hearst Newspapers’ planes of choice were manufactured by Sikorsky Aircraft. A tested and reliable company, Sikorsky had already left a considerable mark in the short history of aviation with their remarkable designs. Of particular note were their S-38 and S-39 Models, twin and single engine variants of a durable and utilitarian amphibious plane noted for being able to land and take off from either land or water carrying considerable cargo or several paying passengers. These planes were flown successfully from locations around the globe, and were commonly found ferrying passengers between islands in the balmy Caribbean. Several adventurers and explorers had even flown these variants over the uncharted jungles of South America and across the vastness of Africa, making discoveries and filling in blank spots on the map as they went. Apparently these Sikorsky amphibians could also be spotted over Greene County as they flew back and forth weekly making newspaper deliveries to Albany.
It is likely that the wreckage on the Swartout Farm had once been an S-39. The Recorder’s reporter, in gruesome detail, noted: “The engine was in an open field, 2,000 feet north one wing was found and about 1,000 feet to the east, the other wing was resting. The tail was about 1,000 feet from the plane and the pontoons were almost the same distance away.” The remnants of the cockpit were elsewhere. The Swartouts had heard the plane come down at about 9:40 that evening. The S-39, with a cruising speed of 95 miles per hour, would have remained on schedule to reach Albany at 10 that evening were it not for the intensity of the storm.
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 fifteen 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 fifteen 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 being paid $150.00 a week to fly newspapers up the Hudson Valley in August 1936.
Lewis Burnell was the second half of the two-man team necessary to keep a Sikorsky S-39 aloft. Unlike motorists at the wheel of automobiles of that era, 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 Mr. Burnell was no exception. Unfortunately for William Howell and Lewis Burnell 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 Burnell 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 Sergeant Conway of the State Police from Catskill along with Coroners Brady and Atkinson and members of the County 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 Burnell 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 eighty-three 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 silver-painted 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.
By Jonathan Palmer, Deputy Greene County Historian.
(A version of this article originally appeared in the June 4th and 11th 2019 issues of the Catskill Daily Mail.)