This week in history: Goodyear blimp catches fire in Loop

On July 21, 1919, a Goodyear blimp ferrying people between Comiskey Park and the White City Amusement Park caught fire and crashed. Here’s how the Chicago Daily News covered it.

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Front page of the Chicago Daily News on July 22, 1919, with first-hand accounts and photos of the Goodyear blimp crash on July 21, 1919

The front page of the Chicago Daily News on July 22, 1919, provided first-hand accounts of the terrible Goodyear blimp crash a day earlier.

From the Sun-Times archives

As published in the Chicago Daily News, sister publication of the Chicago Sun-Times:

As World War I wound to a close in 1919, a sense of optimism swept through the United States, influencing even the most hardened news editor. Why else would the Chicago Daily News make such a far-reaching claim that the city would become the “blimpopolis of the world,” the gateway from North America to London, Paris and Berlin?

“Great passenger airships will make the hop from Chicago to London, and as for New York — it will be merely a crossroads aerial station, where the pilot may whistle or not at his own sweet will,” a Daily News reporter wrote on July 21, 1919.

The editors could not have been more wrong.

The Daily News published at 5 p.m. Monday through Saturday, but its timing that day in July could not have been worse. At about that time, the Wingfoot Air Express, a blimp owned by the Goodyear Tire and Rubber Company, crashed into the Illinois Trust and Savings Building, killing 13 people and injuring dozens more. This story would be particularly painful for the paper because one of its photographers was onboard the airship.

The tragedy occurred at about 4:55 p.m. when the blimp, carrying passengers from Comiskey Park to the White City Amusement Park on the South Side, caught fire while flying over the Loop, according to the next day’s paper. It then dropped about 200 feet and hit the bank.

Witnesses and spectators gathered at South LaSalle Street and West Jackson Boulevard to view the wreckage and share their stories, and by noon, police were “taxed to the point of exhaustion” trying to keep the sidewalks and streets clear.

Bank official F.D. Conner had watched the disaster unfold from a second-floor balcony with his secretary and felt the “sensation of standing on the brink of a pit of fire,” the paper wrote. He described how the airship’s engines and gas tank had fallen through the bank’s roof, shattering a marble pillar and searing plaster.

“Immediately after the terrible noise of impact, I thought the whole building was afire,” Conner said. “This was caused by the reflection of flames upon the polished marble pillars. I rushed out of the office to the edge of the balcony and the sight I saw and my complete surprise made it seem like the end of the world. The main floor was simply a well of fire, a seething furnace from which tongues of flame were shooting up to the roof. There was little smoke, but not a soul was to be seen on the main floor. I did not at the time believe anybody had been trapped in the flames.”

He continued: “The heat in the balcony was unbearable, and it seemed as if the flames would sweep and consume the entire building. For a time, I thought we were trapped and there was no escape, but nothing really burned but the gasoline and the furniture which it ignited.

“As for those whose bodies were dragged out, charred to a crisp, I feel certain that these poor people lost consciousness from the moment the gas tank and the engine smashed down upon them. They were either killed outright or their minds were blank before the fierce gasoline flames could reach them.”

Following the disaster, Chicagoans swooped in to help. Described as “soldierly devotion to duty,” policemen, firemen and “white wings” cleared the wreck and rescued victims. Workers from nearby banks also stopped by to drop off adding machines and other office supplies to support the bank. John J. Mitchell, president of Illinois Trust and Savings, thanked them all profusely.

Daily News employees would have been especially saddened by the crash as one of the victims was a former Chicago Daily News employee. Milton G. Norton, also called M.G. Norton, had recently found work at the Herald Examiner, according to a July 22 story, and he’d been on the airship when it crashed. He died at St. Luke’s hospital.

“Both legs were crushed and he was severely injured,” the paper wrote.

Chicago never became a “blimpopolis,” but the disaster did spark change. Following the tragedy, City Council adopted new rules for aviators flying over the city.

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