On the 28th of July in 1945 a B25 crashed into the Empire State Building. The photographs look like something out of an old King Kong movie, with flames licking up the building. But the fire was extinguished within 40 minutes, still the only fire at such a height that was ever successfully controlled.
And if that hasn’t already got you wanting more, the accident also resulted in 19-year-old Betty Lou Oliver taking the Guinness World record for the longest survived elevator fall recorded.
So what happened?
Lieutenant Colonel William Franklin Smith Jr was the pilot of the B25 bomber.
Col Smith was with the original complement of officers as a 1st Lieutenant when the unit was formed and a Lt Col at the end of the war. He had a jaunty and devil-may-care attitude and was very popular with the men who flew with him. He witnessed all 236 missions of the 457th but fate caught up with him in 1945 after returning from England. He and several others were flying a B-25 bomber from Boston to his new assignment in the midwest.
The plane, a North American B-25 Mitchell medium bomber, was called the “Old John Feather Merchant”.
Lt. Colonel Smith was flying from Boston to Newark airport where he would pick up his superior officers. He travelled through steadily increasing fog and requested a weather report at 25 miles east of his destination. ATC at New York Municipal Airport (now La Guardia) reported that the ceiling was “near zero” and visibility forward limited to three miles.
Municipal tower reported extremely poor visibility over New York, and urged him to land, but Lt. Colonel Smith requested and received clearance from the military to continue his flight. “From where I’m sitting,” the tower operator warned, “I can’t see the top of the Empire State Building.” Despite the advice from the Municipal tower, Smith plunged into the soupy fog with his two crewmen, bound for Manhattan.
The Empire State Building, built in 1930, is 1,453 feet to the tip of the broadcast tower. It was built to take the impact of a 10-ton aircraft.
Gloria Pall was 18 and worked at the Empire State Building on the 56th floor, having been turned down by the Catholic War Relief Services group on the 79th floor because she was Jewish.
Eyewitnesses reported seeing the bomber overhead at about 500 feet and said that it just missed the Rockefeller center. The plane then climbed away back into the fog.
No one knows for sure, but investigators believe that Col. Smith looked down through a break in the cloud cover and saw a curved river and thought it to be the East River, when in fact it was the Hudson. Seeing this curve it is believed that he then descended for his approach at Newark airport. It is believed that the planes speed at this time was 225 mph.
Lt Colonel Smith appears to have seen the building at the last moment: the gear was moving up and the nose was pitched up but he was already too close to the building to evade it. The bomber crashed into the building at the 78th and 79th floor. The building was rocked by the impact which was heard for miles. A fire burst out immediately.
Gloria Pall was working that Saturday but she didn’t mind because the weather wasn’t good enough to go to the beach anyway. She remembers being disappointed that the “pea-soup fog” blocked her view when there was a loud explosion that threw her against the room.
“It’s the German Buzz Bomb!” yelled Sarah, who was usually calm. “They tricked us. They didn’t really surrender!”
Another lady screamed that it was Martians. “We’re being invaded,” she yelled. “I just know it. We’re not getting out of here alive!”
Joan’s boss, Hazel, a short, rotund sweet-faced redhead, was calmly sitting in front of her Danish pastry and coffee. She was still on her break and had just returned from the first floor coffee shop.
The aircraft with a 67-foot wingspan created an 18 x 20 foot hole. The fuel tank exploded. Lt Colonel Smith and three others onboard died on impact and eleven office workers died immediately by the flying metal or in the fire.
The 102-foot building was rocked by the impact. Many people who were in the street at the time saw flames shooting from the point of impact, which was at the 913-foot level. The impact was heard as far as two miles away. Flames and dense smoke obscured the top of the structure. Later on a wing was found on Madison Avenue, one block away.
Nearby buildings were damaged by fragments of the impact and one of the planes engines was found on the South side of the building in the top of a twelve story building. The engine had flown over thirty-third St. and had crashed through a skylight in a penthouse. The engine started a $78,000.00 fire in the studio of sculptor Henry Hering.
Here’s a news reel from the time:
The plane crashed into the north side of the building. One wing was found on Madison Avenue. One of the engines was found on the south side of the building.The other engine fell down an elevator shaft and damaged the cables, including cutting the safety cables, as it fell.
Therese Fortier Willig was on the 79th floor, working for the Catholic Relief Services.
The Day A Bomber Hit The Empire State Building : NPR
“In the other side of the office, all I could see was flames,” Willig said. “Mr. Fountain was walking through the office when the plane hit the building and he was on fire — I mean, his clothes were on fire, his head was on fire. Six of us managed to get into this one office that seemed to be untouched by the fire and close the door before it engulfed us. There was no doubt that the other people must have been killed.”
Betty Lou Oliver, a 19-year-old elevator operator, was on the 80th floor. She was badly burned in the initial fire. Rescue workers placed her into the elevator to send her down an ambulance waiting at the bottom, with no idea that the cables had been damaged. There was a sound like a gunshot when the final cables snapped.
By the time the car crashed into the buffer in the pit (a hydraulic truncheon designed to be a cushion of last resort), a thousand feet of cable had piled up beneath it, serving as a kind of spring. A pillow of air pressure, as the speeding car compressed the air in the shaft, may have helped ease the impact as well. Still, the landing was not soft. The car’s walls buckled, and steel debris tore up through the floor. It was the woman’s good fortune to be cowering in a corner when the car hit. She was severely injured but alive.
This remains the longest fall survived in an elevator according to the Guinness Book of World Records.
Gloria Pall and her friend Joan escaped the building using the stairwell, which had two long flights of steps between landing. One hundred and twelve flights later, they reached the ground floor and dashed out of the building.
As Joan and I went over to look at the engine on 33rd Street, Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia came over to us to ask how we were, and congratulated us on our survival. As we turned to go, my boss pushed his way through the crowd and approached me.
“You ought to come in next Saturday because you didn’t even work two hours today,” he said, oblivious to my disheveled appearance, and the fact that I had my arm in a sling and traces of debris still on my clothes and face.
“What a grump,” I thought, “With all these people applauding us, he’s punishing me for surviving! How insensitive!” Joan and I turned, climbed over the rope that partitioned off the building, and limped our way down the street to the BMT subway so we could get back to Brooklyn.
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