Sunday marks 50 years since what was then the world’s deadliest airplane accident: 130 people died in a plane crash outside Paris. But the most devastated community was not in France, but in the United States.
It was the worst thing that ever happened to Milton Bevington. He witnessed the crash of the Boeing 707 at Orly Airport, with his wife and mother-in-law onboard.
“The plane went up about six feet and came back down and bounced around, zigzagged and finally broke in half,” he said.
The chartered flight crashed when the pilot aborted the takeoff. Of those killed, 122 were members of the Atlanta Art Association. The group was just finishing a tour of Paris and returning home to Georgia. But Bevington, who died in 2010, wasn’t on the plane.
“My wife, who was on the plane, had a great fear of flying, and she had an unwritten rule that we never flew on the same flight anywhere,” he said. “So if we were going someplace, we’d take two different planes.”
A day or so later, Atlanta’s Mayor Ivan Allen Jr. visited the crash site and described what happened.
“The plane began to lose its undercarriage. Then the left wing apparently struck a house some 11- or 12-hundred feet off the runway and sheared the house off,” he said. “And the tail broke off and went one say and then both wings kind of crumpled under the plane, and that’s where I’d say the explosion occurred.”
In the summer of 1962, this crash held the nation’s attention. Martin Luther King Jr. is said to have cancelled a sit-in because of it — and even Andy Warhol commemorated the accident in a painting.
The crash devastated Atlanta. In one moment, most of the leaders of the arts community were gone, and those that remained grieved at the loss of so many.
“There are very few moment in time when larger groups of people suddenly hold their breath together,” says Joe Bankoff, the outgoing CEO of the Woodruff Art Center. “In the aftermath that followed that, there became a sort of community feeling that we needed to do something here in the town as a memorial.”
That’s exactly what happened. People donated millions of dollars to the Atlanta Art Association. That led to the construction of what is today known as the Woodruff Arts Center. The 12-acre campus houses the High Museum of Art, the Alliance Theater and the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra.
Concertgoer Joan Shorter says that today not that many Atlanta residents even know of the crash. And those that do really don’t talk about it.
“It’s a great tragedy, and when people talk about tragedy, they whisper — especially genteel Southern women,” she says. “And there’s probably very few people who really know anything about it.”
This weekend in Atlanta, they will talk about it, though — as the Woodruff Arts Center pauses to remember the accident.
Outside the center, there is one thing that could be overlooked: a statue. It’s an oversized bronze casting of a man — Auguste Rodin’s “The Shade” — a gift from France. A large, circular marker at its base lists the names of those who died. It still serves as a memorial site for those who lost friends and loved ones 50 years ago.