“I CAN'T SEE THE TOP of the Empire State Building.”
It was an off-hand remark from an air traffic controller at LaGuardia Airport on the morning of July 28, 1945, but William Smith, Jr., didn’t pick up on it. Instead, Smith, a 27-year-old lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Army Air Corps, flew his B-25 bomber straight into the skyscraper, killing himself, a crewman, a passenger, and 11 people in the building.
The weather in Manhattan that Saturday morning was unseasonably foggy, and Smith, who was on his way to Newark from Massachusetts, had to fly low to see where he was going. According to aerospaceweb.org, flight rules at the time “required aircraft to maintain an altitude of at least 2,000 feet (610 meters)” over New York City, but Smith hit the skyscraper between the 78th and 79th floors, about 975 feet (295 meters) above the ground.
The impact of the plane tore a hole in the building about 18 feet (5.5 meters) wide and 20 feet (6 meters) high, and ripped the fuel tanks off the fuselage. One of the tanks shot through the 79th floor, trailing flames, and out the other side, smashing through the roof of a neighboring building. The other tank fell down an elevator shaft, starting a fire in the shaft that ignited the fuel that had spread throughout the area of impact. Eventually, the fire spread to the 75th floor.
Since it was the weekend, only about 1,500 people were working in the building, far fewer than there would have been during the week. Among the people killed in the building were six young women working on the 79th floor, employees of the National Catholic Welfare Conference, who were engulfed in flames and died at their desks.
The fire was largely brought under control about 35 minutes after the crash by the building’s suppression system, supplied by water tanks. Fire spread was also hampered by the building’s compartmentalization. Each floor was self-contained, rooms and floors were separated by fire partitions, and stairwells were fireproofed. Each of the building’s 210 steel columns was enclosed in concrete. The walls and floors were both 8 inches (20 centimeters) thick, and the 10 million bricks used in its construction were covered with approximately 200,000 cubic feet (5,663 cubic meters) of limestone.
Among the survivors’ stories was that of 20-year-old Betty Lou Oliver, who survived what is still considered the longest elevator fall on record. When the plane hit the building, the elevator door on the 75th floor had just opened to let her off. She was blown across the hall, badly burned, where she was found by two women, who gave her first aid. They then helped her onto another elevator, but its weakened cables snapped, sending her plummeting more than 1,000 feet (305 meters) to the building’s basement.
Despite the carnage, much of the Empire State Building was open for business the following Monday.
- Kathleen Robinson