On a Saturday morning in July of 1945, Army Air Corps bomber pilot Lt. Colonel William Smith was trying to fly his B-25 bomber through a steadily increasing fog. He was on his way to Newark airport to pick up his commanding officer when he appeared above New York Municipal airport (now La Guardia airport) about 25 miles to the east of his destination. He was requesting a weather report.
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.
Partway through their flight, the pilot quickly became disoriented because he was unable to see the ground below, and he lost his way. Despite Manhattan regulations that forbade aircraft from flying below 2,000 feet, Smith made the decision to drop below 1,000 feet in an attempt to untangle his bomber from the densest part of the fog. When his plane emerged from the thick, his visibility indeed improved. All around his aircraft, silhouettes of skyscrapers towered above Smith and his crew… and the New York Central Building was directly ahead.
Smith reacted quickly and banked hard, pushing the lumbering bomber to its stress limits to try to avoid the collision. His plane just missed the New York Central Building, flying past its west side with little room to spare. Dozens of skyscrapers lay beyond the first one, leaving a forest of fog-shrouded towers in the plane’s path. Smith tried to gain altitude as he weaved between the ghostly shadows of buildings, forcing the bomber to maneuver at its operational extremes.
When the Empire State Building emerged from the fog right ahead of his craft, Smith banked his plane and pulled back as hard as he was able, but the bomber lacked the maneuverability to dodge the large tower looming over it. At 9:49 a.m, in the middle of a desperate, climbing turn, the ten-ton B-25 slammed into the 79th floor of the Empire State Building.
Inside, workers for the War Relief Services of the National Catholic Welfare Conference had already started work when their offices were suddenly engulfed an an explosion of flaming, high-octane fuel. The burning gasoline traveled through hallways, stairwells, and elevator shafts, reaching as far as four floors below the point of impact as the building shook. A publicist working in the offices was propelled out of a window from the explosion, and ten others were caught in the inferno.
Fire and debris rained upon the surrounding area, mostly onto nearby structures. One of the bomber’s engines completely penetrated the Empire State Building, and fell from the opposite side. The other engine flew into an elevator shaft and severed the cable of an elevator car carrying two women, sending it into free fall.
Catherine O’Connor, who was working in the offices at the time of the crash, later recounted her experience:
“The plane exploded within the building. There were five or six seconds— I was tottering on my feet trying to keep my balance— and three-quarters of the office was instantaneously consumed in this sheet of flame. One man was standing inside the flame. I could see him. It was a co-worker, Joe Fountain. His whole body was on fire. I kept calling to him, ‘Come on, Joe; come on, Joe.'” He walked out of it.
Doris Pope, also in the building at the time, initially suspected that World War 2 had been brought to American soil:
“That day, as we were getting ready to take our coffee break, we heard this terrible noise, and the building started to shake. … As we looked out our third-floor window, we saw debris fall on to the street. We immediately thought New York was being bombed.”
Helen J. Hurwitt, who had been working in an office across the street, recounted:
“My husband and I were in a building directly opposite the Empire State Building. … Large plate-glass windows looked out onto 34th Street. The floor we were on was pretty high. At some point, we heard a horrendous noise and rushed to the windows. We were horrified to see a B-25 half in and half out of the Empire State Building.”
The 4-alarm fire brought every available piece of fire-fighting apparatus to the scene. As the building was evacuated, firemen spent about an hour extinguishing the flames. The two women who had been in the free falling elevator were found alive, owing to the elevator’s hydraulic emergency braking system which had slowed the car down slightly, and to the cushion of broken, coiled cables which had piled up at the shaft’s bottom. Sadly, one of the women was fatally wounded, and died shortly after she was found. The surviving woman, Betty Lou Oliver, currently holds a world record for surviving the 75-story free fall.
All told, fourteen men and women were killed in the accident, including Lt. Colonel William Smith and his two crewmen, nine office workers killed from the fire, and the woman who died in the elevator. Joe Fountain, the man who had been caught in the fire but managed to walk out of it, died of his wounds several days later. In addition, twenty-six people were injured.
The impact left a hole in the north face of the Empire State Building eighteen feet wide by twenty feet high. Photographer Ernie Sisto captured this incredible image from the 90th floor, where he had two other newsmen dangle him out the window by his legs so he could get the shot past the ledge. Later in the day, a news broadcast by Mutual Broadcasting Company included interviews with eyewitnesses, as well as an audio recording of the crash which had been accidentally captured by a nearby recording studio.
Investigation showed that the structural integrity of the Empire State Building was not compromised by this accident, but the cost to repair the damage was on the order of a million dollars. For more information, you might check your local library for old copies of New York daily newspapers on microfilm; this was front page news in New York City on July 29, 1945.