Denver Road in Wantagh is lined with manicured lawns and scattered with stately trees. It’s part of a quiet neighborhood that includes Roxbury and Dover roads, just a few blocks from Wantagh Avenue to the west and Oakland Avenue to the east. It is close enough to Sunrise Highway to hear the distant hum of traffic.
But around noon on Aug. 3, 1954, this suburban community was ravaged when a F-84 Thunderjet plunged into the middle of Denver Road. The Wantagh Citizen reported at the time that Frank Snyder of 1867 Denver Road was standing with his daughter on his front lawn when the crippled Air Force plane crashed into the street. Billowing flames, which scorched neighboring houses, enveloped Snyder and his 4-year-old daughter, Geraldine. Snyder later died from his injuries, and Air Force Captain William Weiland died instantly upon impact.
News reports said the jet scattered wreckage for several blocks and upon impact with the street, created a seven-foot crater gouged by the jet’s nose. Red-hot chunks of metal littered the street; three houses were engulfed in flames and 12 other homes were seriously damaged; shrubbery immediately turned black.
It was later learned that the pilot suffered from hypoxia — a loss of oxygen while flying at 30,000 feet and recovered to find that he was too low to avoid a crash. The U.S. Air Force conducted an investigation and concluded that he looked for the widest street he could find where there would be the least amount of loss of life and property.
Within minutes, more than 200 volunteer firefighters responded to the scene, according to Newsday. There were five fire departments on site — Wantagh, Seaford, Bellmore, Levittown and Massapequa. Additionally, a New York City fireman, Capt. John J. Higgins, was visiting his aunt two blocks away and quickly organized a first aid station, reported the Brooklyn Eagle.
On the website SeafordAlumni.com, several former Wantagh residents recalled that day. Don Dewsbury, Wantagh High School Class of 1957, wrote that he and his sister were “seated in our living room [1872 Dover Road], I near the picture window and she across the way on the sofa. Thus, we were probably about 40 yards from the point of impact. Fortunately for us, there was a house in between the site and our house to absorb some of the impact… We suddenly heard a very loud sound and saw the bright, orange flash of a fireball. I dove for cover under furniture on the opposite wall thinking this was indeed the bomb. It was that quick. A few minutes later we recovered and began to piece together the details of what had happened.”
Warren Davies, wrote “I saw it fly right over my backyard, disappear over the trees on Willoughby Ave. and then saw the flames rise. Small pieces of the plane landed in my yard.”
Jim Norton wrote, “I remember standing in my driveway eating a peanut butter sandwich for lunch and seeing this jet streaking across the sky in front of us. It was on fire at the time and the pilot flew it into the middle of the street. That was 1954.”
Susan Santa, reference librarian for the Wantagh Library, provided information for this article.