Around the Nation
7:03 am
Sun June 3, 2012

After Deadly Plane Crash, Atlanta Rallied For The Arts

Originally published on Mon June 4, 2012 7:09 am

Sunday marks 50 years since what was then the world's deadliest airplane accident: a crash that claimed 130 lives outside Paris. 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 6 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 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 way, 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, the crash held the nation's attention. Martin Luther King Jr. is said to have canceled 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 who remained grieved at the loss of so many.

"There are very few moments 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 who 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. "There's probably very few people who really know anything about it."

They will talk about it this weekend in Atlanta, 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.

Copyright 2012 WABE-FM. To see more, visit http://www.pba.org/.

Transcript

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Rachel Martin. Fifty years ago today, 130 people died in a plane crash outside Paris. At the time, it was the world's deadliest airplane accident. But the most devastated community wasn't in France. Almost all the planes passengers were arts patrons from Atlanta, Georgia. They were visiting Europe as part of a three-week arts tour.

David Barasoain of member station WABE reports on how that crash and the resulting loss changed Atlanta.

DAVID BARASOAIN, BYLINE: It was the worst thing that ever happened to Milton Bevington. He witnessed the crash of the Boeing 707 at Orly Airport. His wife and mother-in-law were onboard.

MILTON BEVINGTON: The plane went up about six feet and came back down and bounced around, zigzagged and finally broke in half.

BARASOAIN: The chartered flight crashed when the pilot aborted takeoff. One hundred twenty-two of those killed were members of the Atlanta Art Association. The group was just finishing a tour of Paris and returning home. But Bevington, who died in 2010, wasn't on the plane.

BEVINGTON: 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. And so, if we were going someplace, we'd take two different planes.

BARASOAIN: A day or so later, Atlanta's Mayor Ivan Allen Jr. visited the crash site.

MAYOR IVAN ALLAN JR.: The plane began to lose its undercarriage. Then the left wing apparently struck a house some 11 or 1,200 feet off the end of the runway and sheared the house off. And that turned the plane into an angle like this and the tail broke off and went one way and then...

BARASOAIN: 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. But 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.

JOE BANKOFF: There are very few moments in time when larger groups of people suddenly hold their breath together.

BARASOAIN: Joe Bankoff is the outgoing CEO of the Woodruff Art Center.

BANKOFF: And so 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.

BARASOAIN: And 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....

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

BARASOAIN: ...and the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra. That's where I found concertgoer Joan Shorter. She says that today not that many Atlanta residents even know of the crash. And those that do really don't talk about it.

JOAN SHORTER: Well, yeah, it was a great tragedy, it was a great tragedy, and when people talk about tragedy, they whisper, especially, you know, genteel Southern women and there's probably very few people who really know anything about it.

BARASOAIN: 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, an oversized bronze casting of a man, Rodin's "The Shade." It was a gift from France. A large, circular marker at its base lists the names of those who died.

And it is this very spot that still serves as a memorial site for those who lost friends and loved ones 50 years ago. For NPR News, I'm David Barasoain in Atlanta. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.