Empire State Building Tragedy of 1945

Lost amid the hoopla surrounding the celebrations of the end of World War II has been the 50th anniversary of the army plane crash into the Empire State Building. Many do not know of the tragic incident of July 28, 1945 -- the day a B-25 bomber, lost in fog, rammed into what was then the world's tallest building. Fewer, still, remember the miraculous survival of the woman who fell 75 stories when the cables to her elevator were severed. Elevator operator Betty Lou Oliver survived the of 75 storey plunge inside an elevator, which still stands as the Guinness World Record for the longest survived elevator fall ever recorded.

Lieutenant Colonel William F. Smith, Jr., a decorated veteran of 100 combat missions, was piloting the bomber from his home in Bedford, Massachusetts to Newark, New Jersey to pick up his commanding officer, before returning to home base in South Dakota. The flight plan called for Smith to land at LaGuardia Airport. A dense fog over the city led the air traffic controller to direct that a landing be made. Smith, however, apparently believing he could maneuver safely through the fog, asked and received permission to fly on to Newark -- on the other side of Manhattan from LaGuardia. The last thing the air traffic controller told Smith was, 'At the present time, I can't see the top of the Empire State Building.'

The War Department, now a section of the Defense Department, later determined the pilot erred in judgment when electing to fly over Manhattan in the weather conditions which prevailed at the time' -- Smith should never have been cleared to proceed on to Newark. Disoriented by the dense fog, he apparently believed he was on Manhattan's west side.

Smith's final blunder came when he passed the Chrysler Building. Had he kicked the left rudder, he would have been safe; instead, he went right rudder and directly on a path to the Empire State Building. At 200 miles per hour, the unarmed trainer bomber screamed down 42nd Street and banked south over 5th Avenue. The pilot tried desperately to climb, but it was too late. At 9:40 that Saturday morning, the B-25 slammed into the 79th floor of the Empire State Building.

Luckily, the accident occurred on a weekend, with only about 1,500 people in the building -- compared with the 10,000-15,000 on an average weekday. Still, 14 died in the accident -- 11 in the building, plus Colonel Smith and the other two occupants of the plane. Hardest hit was the Catholic War Relief Office on the 79th floor, directly in the path of the bomber. Eight Catholic War Relief Office workers were killed.
From Life Magazine. The building's distinctive Art Deco spire was originally designed to be a mooring mast and depot for dirigibles. The 102nd floor was originally a landing platform with a dirigible gangplank. A particular elevator, traveling between the 86th and 102nd floors, was supposed to transport passengers after they checked in at the observation deck on the 86th floor. However, the idea proved to be impractical and dangerous after a few attempts with airships, due to the powerful updrafts caused by the size of the building itself. A large broadcast tower was added to the top of the spire in 1953.


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