Manhattan trucking adventures

December 4, 2020

John Bendel

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Peddling freight in New York City, you encounter the most interesting people. With a little luck, you don’t meet them in person.

A note with the manifest and freight bills on my clipboard one morning said, “Stop and see this guy.” There was a name and an address on Reade Street in lower Manhattan. I asked Sal the dispatcher about it. He explained the guy had called and said I backed into his dock, apparently mistaking the address, and damaged a support column and the tin roof it held up. I drove away, the guy claimed, but not before he jotted down my truck number.

When I got there, I double parked rather than back in and asked for the boss by name. The dock foreman said he was out and asked if I had a delivery for them. When I explained why I was there, he told me to forget it and leave.

The column and roof had been damaged for a couple of years now, but the boss used it to scam truckers. He would take the number of a passing truck, call the carrier, and claim that truck had caused the damage. Insurance companies and sometimes carriers themselves would pay just to make the guy go away. It was a profitable cheat.

“Don’t come back,” the foreman suggested. His boss was a truly irritating guy who would try to browbeat me into confessing. I got out of there fast, and as far as I know, my carrier A-P-A did not pay the guy.

Another thing about Manhattan: you’re never far from a news event, and there was a big one on May 23, 1974.

I had driven my Riteway Express (I had changed jobs) GMC straight truck into a cul de sac off East 45th Street where the U.S. Post Office shared a shipping and receiving area with what was then the Pan-Am Building. I had a small delivery to the 59-story office tower that loomed over Grand Central Station on its north side.

Just a few minutes later, at 12:20 p.m., a hijacked helicopter landed on the helipad on the Pan Am roof. Few in the building knew what was happening. Soon, most of the world would know.

The unique loading area in the middle of the block was restricted to trucks with a less than 12-foot clearance. It was accessible through an alley beneath Park Avenue called Depew Place. Post Office trucks kept the alley busy.

I had my signed freight bill and was just about to pull out when an NYPD car came through the alley, emergency lights blazing siren wailing. Then came another and another. They were followed by more cops and EMTs. The receiving area and Depew Place quickly filled with emergency personnel. I could see a fire engine out on East 45th. I’m sure there were more than one. In any case, I wouldn’t be going anywhere any time soon.

Cops and EMTs charged onto the Pan Am dock and down the hall to the elevators. And they kept coming.

Another driver and I asked what was going on, but most of the cops ignored us. The few who answered said they only knew there was something happening on the roof. It was more than half an hour before WINS Radio reported a hijacked helicopter had landed on the Pan Am Building, shots had been fired, and the police had arrived in force.

Rumors began circulating through the building. One maintenance guy told us there was a shootout on the roof, that terrorists were killing hostages and holding off the cops. Later he said there was panic on the upper floors after blood started dripping down the stairs from the roof. He also said the FBI had arrived with some serious weapons.

I was there a total of three hours. It would have been longer had the post office not prevailed on the cops to clear Depew Place so the mail trucks could get in and out. I got out with them.

The 11 o’clock news had the story that night. Turned out there was only one hijacker, a soft-spoken, obviously unwell 22-year-old with a sawed-off 22-caliber rifle. He hijacked the Bell Jet Ranger II at the East 34th Street heliport with the pilot and a 21-year-old hostage. At the Pan Am Building, the hijacker demanded $2 million to be delivered by a woman in a bikini. The pilot made a dash for freedom and the hijacker shot him in the arm – the “shots fired.” With that, the hostage clubbed the hijacker and took his gun. Then the helicopter was stormed by the hundreds of cops and FBI agents at the scene.

Dispatch was impressed when I called them from the Pan Am Building. They were less impressed by the real story. The next morning, they were upset about all the undelivered freight I brought back.

I wasn’t there when the story repeated itself in a darker fashion on May 16, 1977.

A Sikorsky Model S-61L, a big 30-passenger helicopter, landed on the Pan Am roof. The engine remained running, and the blades continued to turn while some passengers got off and others waited in a line to board.

Suddenly, the landing gear on one side of the chopper collapsed – metal fatigue, the National Transportation Safety Board would determine. The Sikorsky tipped, and the turning blades hit the roof. One sliced through the line of waiting passengers, killing four instantly and spewing body parts across the roof. Another blade broke free and fell onto 45th Street 800 feet below, killing a pedestrian. I am glad I missed that one.

That was the last commercial flight from the Pan Am Building, which is now the Met Life Building. The Reade Street scammer is long gone too. The dilapidated old building is now condos, and, believe me, you can’t afford to live there. LL

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John Bendel

John Bendel is Land Line’s contributing editor-at-large. A former trucker, former editor at National Lampoon and two trucking magazines, John is an author, photographer, and freelancer. His work has appeared in the New York Times, The Washington Post, and many U.S. newspapers.