The Empire State building was the world’s tallest building from 1931 up to 1970 but is now only the 26th highest in the world. It remains one of the most iconic buildings on the Manhattan skyline.
It was a Saturday morning the 28 July 1945. There were only about 1500 people in the building, which during the week had on average 50 000 daily visitors and about 15 000 staff from a host of various companies.
It was 09:52 a m. On the 79th floor, a group of about 20 employees of the National Catholic Welfare Council, just third of the staff of 60 who came in during the week, were packing goods for distribution to overseas soldiers. Some of these workers were volunteers.
Some time earlier at 08:25, a B-25 Mitchell bomber had left Bedford Army Field, Mass en route to Newark, NJ. At the wheel of the ten ton plane was pilot William Franklin Smith Jr, accompanied by two passengers, Staff Sergeant Christopher Domitrovitch and Albert Perna, the friend of an aviation machinist who was hitching a ride home.
Due to the bad weather Pilot Smith contacted La Guardia Field for permission to land there but it was denied because of zero visibility. The chief air traffic controller, Victor Barden, told him there were already four planes backed up over Port Chester and three over Coney Island. He could not even see the top of the Empire State Building from his control tower.
Barden advised him to drop down to 900 ft (274m) after crossing the Hudson into New Jersey airspace. (The regulation height for planes over New York City/Manhattan was 1500-2000 ft (457-610m).
Smith said “Roger” (military speak for OK) and signed off, little realizing he no idea where he was. He evidently decided to press on for Newark instead of land at LaGuardia but hadn’t even crossed into New Jersey yet. The clouds parted enough for him to see he was flying among the towering skyscrapers of Manhattan. Then the fog closed in again…
Down on the streets of Manhattan people heard the noise of the plane but couldn’t see much through the fog. But people in other office buildings looked up in horror as they saw it heading straight for the Empire State Building. One of these was Nannette Morrison, working on the 38th floor of a skyscraper on 10E 40th Street, who spotted it at window level and directly over Fifth Avenue. As it flew southwards it was swallowed up in a grey mass of fog above 34th Street.
Hurtling through the grey sky the bomber struck the north face of the 79th floor at a speed of over 200 mph (320 km/h), causing instant chaos. There was a horrific explosion which rocked the whole area. It tore a gaping hole 20 ft by 18 ft (5.5 m by 6.1 m) between the 78th and 80th floors.
Luckily the 78th floor and floors 81-85 were empty, and only two people were at work on the 80th.
The impact force was so great that one engine sheared off. Tearing through seven intervening walls, it snapped the cables of three elevators and shot through the south side of the building across a whole block, finally plummeting 900 ft (370m) onto the roof of a 17 storey building and setting fire to a penthouse art studio there.
The other engine and part of the landing gear fell down an elevator shaft, also causing a fire. Apart from Smith and his two passengers, eleven people in the building lost their lives. Twenty-four people were injured, six seriously.
Nineteen year old elevator operator Betty Lou Oliver was very lucky. She was in one of the elevators whose cables snapped. The lift fell 75 floors. She survived, although broke her pelvis, back and neck. She holds the world record for the longest survived elevator fall. One can imagine the girl’s absolute terror as the elevator careened out of control down the shaft.
One of the first volunteers on the scene was Mayor LaGuardia, who took charge of fire-fighting operations. Luckily the fire was brought under control within 40 minutes – the only major fire on record ever brought under control at such a dizzy height. Invariably skyscraper fires, perhaps because of the high winds up there and because fire ladders can’t reach them, continue to burn until all the top floors are gutted.
Survivors relate their Stories
Therese Fortier Willig, aged 20 and working for the Catholic Relief Services on the 79th floor was one of the lucky ones. “In the other side of the office, all I could see was flames,” she said. “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.”
“It was a very small universe at that point,” she added. “You’re stuck there in an island, with fire all around us. A couple of the women had passed out from the smoke, and I had a handkerchief in my pocket, and so I used that to cover my nose and my mouth to protect me from the fumes. And somebody had opened the window. And I’m sitting there, and I thought about my rings. And I thought I won’t be around to have them, someone else might as well have use out of them. So I took them off my fingers and threw them out the window.”
She said a man on the street far below signalled to them to stay where they were.
“I guess he was trying to give us some solace — to say don’t worry,” she recalled. “And that was a connection with the rest of the world. We all felt a little better to know that someone knew we were there.”
“And all of a sudden here were firemen and they’re coming to rescue us, all dressed up in their raincoats, whatever they wear,” Willig said. “It was just wonderful. We climbed out through the broken glass. I was just grateful to be alive.”
I guess after her harrowing experience, she could easily have mistaken their protective suits for rain gear…
Lower down on the 56th floor, Gloria Pall worked for the United Service Organization.
“I was at the file cabinet and all of a sudden the building felt like it was just going to topple over,” she said. “It threw me across the room, and I landed against the wall. People were screaming and looking at each other. We didn’t know what to do. We didn’t know if it was a bomb or what happened. It was terrifying.”
Fortunately the well designed building stayed standing. Miss Pall and her co-workers didn’t realize what had happened until they were safely out of the building.
She said: “I saw crowds of people just looking at each other and I said, ‘What happened? What happened? A man pointed up to the 79th floor and I looked up and saw the tail of a B-25 bomber.”
The fourteen year old structure stood up extremely well to its encounter with the B25 bomber. The famous building had survived the strongest ever challenge to its integrity and was not found wanting.
Most businesses in the building opened as usual on Monday the 30th as if nothing had happened.
The accident caused two major policy changes. The Federal Tort Claims Act was passed in 1946, allowing people to sue the federal government for incidents like this. Some of the survivors and families of victims were able to benefit from this new law, as the provisions were backdated by eight months to make allowance for this.
The Civil Aeronautics Administration set strict new regulations. In future, the minimum altitude for all flights over New York City would be 2500 ft (760 m) regardless of weather conditions.
Despite this, there was a narrow shave almost exactly a year later, on 24 July 1946, when an unknown twin-engined aircraft nearly struck the building, giving the tourists on the observation deck a major adrenalin rush.
The terror attack on 911 wasn’t the first time planes crashed into a New York skyscraper, even if it was far more dramatic and led to a far greater loss of life.
Here’s some interesting links to the 1945 Empire State plane crash:
The Sky Is Falling (book) by Arthur Weingarten.