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In fans' memories, tragedies echo among the cheers

THE BALTIMORE SUN

It was Safety Patrol Day, and 20,000 kids got in free at Memorial Stadium to celebrate a year of helping their classmates make it to and from school without anything bad happening to them.

But before the Orioles took the field against the Cleveland Indians, one child was dead, a dozen or more were seriously injured and 46 others were hurt.

The Memorial Stadium escalator accident of May 2, 1964, turned a day of fun for schoolchildren from around the state into an afternoon of terror and mangled bodies.

It started during the national anthem, but with all the noise inside the stadium, almost no one in the stands heard the cries or knew what was going on between the lower and upper decks along the third base side.

Said one witness the day of the accident, "It looked like someone had gone through here with a hatchet."

The hatchet was 48 feet of sharp metal stair treads measuring 40 inches wide, 16 inches deep and moving at 120 feet per minute, the instrument of the worst accident in the history of Memorial Stadium.

Excited and eager to get to their free seats, hundreds of young people were getting on three and four at a time at the bottom of the escalator only to find out that the top of the stairs was blocked by a narrow metal gate that allowed only one person to get off at a time.

Kids began falling back on top of one another in a crush of bodies pinned down and cut as the escalator kept running until someone finally found the shut-off switch.

In the 37 years that major league ball has been played at the Waverly stadium dedicated to American war dead from the two world wars, the escalator accident was one of only a handful of awful events that have interrupted the fun and sports there.

What would have been the greatest tragedy by far almost occurred in December 1976, when a local bus driver named Donald N. Kroner flew his small plane into the upper deck just moments after thousands of fans filed out from a Colts game against Pittsburgh.

Kroner, who was convicted of reckless flying, later explained the crash by saying he just wanted to catch a little bit of the game. He came out of the accident with cuts and bruises.

Others have not been so fortunate. In 1986, a city policeman named Richard Miller was directing traffic outside before a game when he was struck and killed by a hit-and-run driver drugged on PCP; and in 1988, a 17-year-old named Edgar Davis was shot outside of the annual City-Poly Thanksgiving Day football classic.

Another took his own life. Before an Oriole game against Kansas City in 1969, a young man jumped to his death from the retaining wall that rings the crest of the stadium. His body barely missed hitting a woman and her young son on the ground who were spooked out of the way by the man's falling shoes.

Lives have been saved as well. In 1978 a fan suffered a heart attack in the stands and was saved by physician-pitcher Doc Medich of the visiting Texas Rangers, prompting the entire Texas team to sign up for lessons in cardiopulmonary resuscitation.

Still, with the Orioles and their millions of fans due to move to their new ballpark at Camden Yards at the end of this season, chances are that the great escalator accident of 1964 will be remembered by people like Marty McMahon as the worst.

Mr. McMahon, chief of a Baltimore ambulance crew at the time, was doing some springtime painting at his east side row house on Curley Street when the emergency call came in about 1:15 p.m. He rushed to the stadium still dressed in his old painting clothes.

"There was a pileup of kids, and the escalator kept moving," he recalled. "The edges of the steps are like claws in an animal and no one shut the escalator off and kids kept piling up as the steps scratched and mutilated and cut these youngsters open."

Killed was 14-year-old Annette S. Costantini, an eighth-grader at St. Dominic's School in Northeast Baltimore whose body was found crumpled near the top of the escalator once the bodies were cleared. Several other students from the Roman Catholic school in Hamilton were hurt in the accident.

Judy Seluzicki, now Dr. Judith Britz, was one of them.

"It was going to be a fun time at the stadium, a class picnic," said Dr. Britz, director of research and development for a health care company in Rockville. "I was with an excited group of kids, and we were going onto the escalator, and I heard screaming ahead of me, and in a few minutes I was at the bottom of a pile of people, and I thought I was going to be suffocated. I thought I was going to die. In a few minutes the escalator stopped, and adults were pulling kids off the pile. I looked down at my left ankle, and I could see bones."

It wasn't until Tommy Zamenski, at the game with Sacred Heart of Mary School in Dundalk, saw the looks on the faces of children around him that he realized he was hurt.

"Everybody was looking at me and screaming -- my foot was completely laid open," said Mr. Zamenski, who was 13 years old at the time. "I didn't feel the pain, but I could see the bones in my foot. When the [pileup started] I tried to hold onto the rails, but the force made us fall backward and onto our sides. It was nasty, like razor blades just ripping at you. First it ripped my tennis shoes and shredded my pants. I was in shock, walking over people who were cut up and screaming."

The Otis Elevator Co. escalator that killed Annette Costantini was not found to be defective; it was almost new and in good working order. But to keep pranksters from turning off the escalator while people were on it, the machine's emergency shut-off switch had been put on a wall across from the moving stairway. When the trouble began, a stadium usher had to climb over the falling and twisted bodies of children to reach it and stop the escalator.

The cause lay not with the escalator or with the kids, but in adult human error.

After the left field bleachers had filled up early with Safety Patrol students, Oriole management decided to open the upper deck to the children who were still arriving by game time.

Stadium employees routinely used a metal "people channeler" to control the flow of people to the escalators, located at the far end of the first- and third-base sides to move fans to the upper decks. At the start of games the channelers were placed at the bottom of the escalator to allow one person on at a time; after games they were bolted in at the top to allow one person to go down at a time.

Before the May 2 game a channeler was at the top of the escalator on the third-base side, apparently left there from a previous event, allowing kids to get on three and four at a time at the bottom but only get off one at a time at the top.

Children began falling back on one another, others kept getting on at the bottom and the escalator continued to move beneath them.

Charles Dahlgreen, then an eighth-grader at Elm Street Junior High School in Frederick, still has in the attic of his Atlanta home a 27-year-old baseball signed by every member of the 1964 Orioles that the club gave him during one of the many visits players made to children who were hospitalized.

"First [the steps] took off your shoes and then they cut into the back of my right heel," said Mr. Dahlgreen. "I still have indentations where the ribs of the escalator cut in."

Several lawsuits demanding millions of dollars in compensation were filed after the accident. The cases dragged on for years despite a Baltimore grand jury finding that no "wanton criminal negligence" was committed by the city, the Orioles or the Otis Elevator Co. The ballclub's insurance company settled the suits out of court.

Mr. Zamenski believes he was awarded about $20,000 for his injuries, adding that his father handled the money. Although he doesn't know what happened to it, Mr. Zamenski doesn't think the cash would have made much difference to a big husky kid who loved sports and found himself crippled at age 13.

"It changed my whole life," he said. "I lost three-quarters of an inch of my ankle bone. I think they wanted to amputate the leg, but they didn't. I swam every day for a year just to try and get my leg to move. I lost tendons underneath my toes. To bend my toes I have to use the muscles on top to bend them down, to make it move. I can't run, and if I'm on my feet for 10 or 12 hours a day, it starts hurting."

Dr. Britz also feels pain when she's been on her feet too long but said she learned some good things from the bad.

"I remember so many people who helped us: the firemen, the men who pulled the bodies off the other children, even the gestures by the Orioles when we were in the hospital were important," she said. "Your friends and teachers came, and you found out that your family pulls together more closely."

The family of the dead girl, young Annette Costantini, for whom a standing moment of silence was observed before the next day's game, moved from their home in the 2800 block of East Northern Parkway a few years after the accident.

No one at St. Dominic's remembers talking with or hearing from the family since that time, and the Costantinis' last formal contact with Holy Redeemer Cemetery, where eight classmates in school uniforms carried Annette's coffin for burial, is listed as October 1966.

"I think they got as far away from that stadium as they could," said John Hook, one of the oldest parishioners at the church.

D8 The escalators at Memorial Stadium are still in use.

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