The 1945 Plane Crash at the Empire State Building
The Twin Towers were not the first buildings in New York City to be hit by aircraft. Before they were destroyed by the worst terrorist act ever committed on US soil, the Empire State Building was hit by an airplane accidentally in 1945. The plane crashed into the building between the 78th and 79th floors and took fourteen lives that day.
Facts about the Empire State Building
In 1945, the Empire State Building owned the distinction of being the tallest made-made structure in the world (The Chrysler Building was the previous owner of that record). It was built in 14 months from 1930 to 1931 by 3,700 workers for $24.7 million dollars ($500 million in today dollars). After completion, the building stood 1,250 feet high with 102 floors. and became the first building with more than 100 floors ever built. Today the Empire building is no longer the tallest building in New York City since the newly constructed Freedom Tower or 1WTC building just passed the 1,250 feet height recently.
Prelude to the Crash
The day started as a very unusual day for a summer day in New York. It was chilly, rainy, and very foggy day that Saturday on July 28, 1945. The war in Europe was over but the United States was still at war with Japan. The mood of people at the time was euphoric because they knew it was a matter time when Japan will surrender and peace will follow. People were doing their usual activities on a Saturday morning; shopping at Macy’s, Gimbel’s and other department stores in Manhattan while others were enjoying breakfast in the Fifth Avenue restaurants. The Empire Building already had about 1,000 visitors on the observation deck that morning, but due to the thick fog many visitors were disappointed since they couldn’t see a thing. Since this was a Saturday, there were only about 1,500 workers in the building that day, generally on a typical week day in 1945 about 15,000 workers would be there. Among the workers, there was a group working in the Catholic War Relief Services office on the 79th floor. They worked on providing aid for the millions of people in the war zones around the world who were homeless and destitute due to the war.That morning no one knew what was about to happen; that will ironically happen again 56 years later under different circumstances.
Just before 10 AM people in the street noticed a low roaring sound overhead, the sound was emanating from a low flying B-25D Mitchell Bomber flying through the thick fog. The onlookers noticed the plane was only flying a few hundred feet above and between the buildings. Obviously, something was wrong. The plane barely missed the Chrysler Building and continued toward the Grand Central Office Building. At this point, the plane turned right at the last second to avoid hitting the Grand Central Office Building but immediately up ahead the Empire State Building appeared from out of the fog. By this time it was too late. People yelled and screamed as they witnessed an explosion as the plane hit and saw flames shooting out of the building around the 79th floor. The B-25 Bomber had hit the building at the 79th floor at a speed of about 200 miles an hour. The force of the impact created an 18 by 20-foot hole in the side of the building. The left wing of the plane was torn off and fell a block away to Madison Avenue below. The entire 79th floor was in flames from fuel spat from the ruptured tanks. Both engines were ripped from the plane during the impact; one engine was hurtled across 80 feet of the floor through walls and partitions and emerged out of the south side of the building and fell on top of a 12 story building. The other engine went through office walls and dropped into an elevator shaft. It fell 1,000 feet to a sub-basement taking an empty elevator car with it. By this time, fire engines from all over the city were racing to the crash site. Fortunately, the standpipes in the building were not damaged from the crash; firefighters had enough water to put the flames out in about 40 minutes.
The Pilot and the Plane
The pilot, 27-year old Lieutenant Colonel Bill Smith (William F. Smith Jr.), was a veteran of 100 combat missions over France and Germany. For this distinguished service, he was awarded two Distinguished Flying Crosses, four Air Medals, and the French Croix de Guerre. Before the crash, he was deputy commander of 457th Bombardment Group. Smith’s group had returned to the United States in June 1945 after the collapse of Nazi Germany to reassemble at an air base in Sioux Falls, South Dakota in preparation for retraining in B-29 bombers and possible deployment in the Pacific. On the day of the crash, Smith had already spent a few days with his wife and their infant son at home in Watertown, Massachusetts before leaving for Newark, New Jersey. His mission was to pick up the Sioux Fall air base’s commander, Colonel H.E. Bogner, before returning to South Dakota. There were two other men in the plane with Smith that morning, 31- year old Air Force Staff Sergeant Christopher S. Domitrovich and a 20-year old Navy Aviation Machinist’s Mate name Albert G. Perna.
The plane in the crash was a B-25D Mitchell Bomber. This plane made it first appearance on August 19, 1940, and remained in service for the army until 1979. Back in 1963, I saw these planes on numerous occasions flying in formation near the army air base not too far from where I was living in Virginia. These were beautiful planes. They had a wingspan about 67 feet and were 52 feet in length. They weighed about 10 tons (21,120 pounds), carried a crew of 6 and were equipped with 12 guns and were capable of carrying 6, 000 pounds of bombs. These planes were the workhorse of the planes used during World War II for heavy bombardment over Germany. Finally, these planes had a maximum speed of 275 mph and a range of 2,700 miles.
The Lives Lost that Day
The lives of fourteen people were taken that day. There were 26 injured, including several firemen. The pilot, Lieutenant Colonel Smith, and the other two men aboard the plane, Staff Sergeant Christopher Domitrovich, and Albert G. Perna were killed instantly when the plane struck the building. Tragically, Albert G. Perna decided at the last second to hitch a ride on the plane for a short ride from Boston to Brooklyn to see his parents.
Paul Dearing, a 37-year old volunteer working for the Catholic War Relief office died when he smashed into balcony five stories down after escaping from the flames by leaping out of a window.
Joe Fountain died a few days after the crash from severe burns all over his body after he managed to walk out the building on his own.
A building janitor on the 78th floor, the only one on the floor at the time of the crash was trapped and killed by the flames.
When the plane hit 15 to 20 women in the Catholic War Relief Services office were instantly burned. Eight of them died from the flame.
Finally, there is one very interest chain of events that occurred right at the moment of the crash that day. Betty Lou Oliver became a record holder that day in an unusual way. When the plane hit, Betty Oliver a 20-year old elevator operator had just opened her doors; the impact blew her out of the elevator onto the 80th-floor lobby and badly injured her. Two women on the same floor who were not affected by the impact rushed to help her and turned Betty Lou over to another elevator operator to get her to street level. After the elevator closed, a loud sound was heard. One of the cables supporting the elevator broke and the elevator plunged from the 80th floor down to street level in a few seconds. Miraculously, the elevator emergency brakes kicked in to slow the elevator, and the broken cable coiled up under the elevator acted as a coiled spring to stop the plunging elevator. Betty Lou survived the plunge and returned to the building five months later after recovering from her injuries. She took the elevator to the top. She had no memory of this incident. She continues to hold the record for surviving the longest fall in an elevator, over 1,000 ft.
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© 2010 Melvin Porter