This coming week, on January 22, marks the 61st anniversary of the plane crash in Elizabeth, New Jersey that killed my sister Donna and gravely injured my other sister, Linda. It is also the central incident of my memoir, Replacement Child, coming out in March from Seal Press.
As you might suspect, it’s a day that weighs heavily on me each year as I think about how the accident changed the lives of my family, and even led to my very existence. But, this year, I’ve been drawn to focus on the many other lives that were changed by this accident. It reminds me that, as in any tragedy –and there have been far too many recently, there are ramifications and ripples that are felt by many unseen victims for years afterward. Maybe for generations.
Every so often, I receive an email or letter from someone who has a connection to that long ago plane crash in 1952. The long tentacles of my family’s tragedy, a small one in the scheme of world events, continually fascinates me. Here’s one I received just the other day:
My name is Douglas Carl Spriggs. I was born in Syracuse, N.Y., November 1952, following the death of my grandfather Carl U. Spriggs who died in the Jan 22 crash in Elizabeth. Carl had two children, my father Robert and my Aunt Betty both still living. I found your website while looking for information about the crash and want to say that your story touches me as that day in Elizabeth changed all our lives indeed. I wear Carl’s wedding band salvaged from the wreckage and will always wish I could have known him. Although much different than your experience, a replacement child of sorts myself.
Mr. Spriggs note also reminds me of how many different kinds of replacement children feel so identified, in addition to those who were born after the death of a sibling, as I was. I’ve heard from a twin whose sister died in utero, a man who felt he replaced his sister in the family after she was killed in an accident, and an adult who survived a car crash when his brother did not—to name just a few.
At one reading of a chapter of Replacement Child, a woman told me that her father was the sole survivor of the family who lived in the apartment above my family. That apartment was hit straight on by the plane; a mother and two children were killed. The father was not at home, and so, survived. The woman who approached me was also his daughter, with his second wife, who he married after the accident.
“He never told us he had a family before us,” she told me.
It took me a moment to register what she was telling me, but when I did, I took her hand and apologized for being the vehicle of that information.
I also heard from the granddaughter of a woman who died in the accident, who lived across the street from my family. I didn’t know that she suffered in the hospital for several days with burns before she died. Her uncle, who was 14 at the time, was also at the scene of the plane crash. He escaped being killed because he was sent out to the store just before the plane hit. This woman said that no one in her family would ever talk about the accident, and was grateful to find out more in my book. Their code of silence prevailed as it did in my family.
This year, January 22 falls on a Tuesday. The same day of the week the accident happened in 1952. I’ll light my yahrzeit candle, not only for my sister Donna who died that day, but also for all those who struggle with the tangled aftermath of tragic events.