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The Bomber Crash into the Empire State Building
July 28, 1945


Flying down from New Bedford, Massachusetts, Lieutenant Colonel William Franklin Smith Jr., a 27-year-old West Point Graduate, U.S. Army pilot, and a recipient of the Distinguished Flying Cross, Air Medal and French Croix de Guerre, was trying to fly his B-25 bomber through a steadily increasing fog on Saturday, July 28th, 1945.  He was on his way to Newark airport to pick up his commanding officer when he appeared above New York Municipal airport (now LaGuardia Field) - about 25 miles to the east of his destination.

After he had flown the twin-engine B-25 bomber down under a 900-foot ceiling he radioed  for a weather report. and requested permission to go on to Newark.  The tower at Municipal approved the request, warned him of low - two mile - visibility, stating "From where I'm sitting," the tower operator warned, "I can't see the top of the Empire State Building."

Nevertheless, Smith flew the bomber down into the fog with his two crewmen, bound for Manhattan.

But, 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 straighten out his bomber's bomber location.

When his plane emerged from the thick, the visibility improved. But all around his Mitchell bomber, silhouettes of skyscrapers towered above Smith and his crew… and the New York Central Building, a 60-floor building at Fifth Avenue and 42nd Street, was directly ahead.

Thunder in the Street. In Manhattan, a few minutes before 10 a.m., workers in the midtown towers heard a plane close by — very close. It thundered past the stark, stone structures of Rockefeller Center. On the streets below, pedestrians startled by the low-flying craft looked up, saw Old John Feather Merchant barely miss a . Then the craft, southbound, pulled up into the cloud.

On the 75th floor of the Empire State Building a man heard the throbbing motors, turned quickly to the window, as he had many times before when planes passed. Coming straight at him out of the fog was a twin-engined bomber. It was banking slightly to the left.

Perhaps at that instant Lieut. Colonel Smith, veteran of 1,000 combat hours, caught a split-second glimpse of the massive grey structure, and tried to pull away.

Flame & Rubble. It was too late. In the next instant there happened what many a Manhattanite had often predicted and feared. The ten-ton airplane, flying at an estimated speed of 225 m.p.h., crashed head-on into the north side of the Empire State Building at the level of the 78th and 79th floors.

The aircraft's two engines, weighing more than a ton each, punched through the art deco façade. One smashed into the hoist shaft of elevator No 7; the second severed all six hoist cables suspending elevator No 6, which fell all the way to the basement. The screams of its young attendant, Betty Lou Oliver, could be heard in the lobby. When the elevator finally smashed into the oil-filled buffer at the base of the shaft, she suffered a broken back – and survived.

The world's tallest building shuddered through its 1,250 feet and down through its sub-street depths. A great roar burst from its high-rearing ribs.

The bomber gored through the thick steel and stone of the building as if they were papier-mâché. Then, in a flash of flame, the gasoline tanks exploded. In another instant flames leaped and seeped inside & outside the building.

Bright fire gushed from the 18-ft. wound in the structure's side, reached for the topmost observation tower on the 102nd floor. Gasoline fumes popped in flash explosions four and five floors below. Thick, acrid smoke billowed above & below, soon filled the upper floors.

Red gasoline ran into elevator shafts and exploded. Parts of the plane sheared elevator cables, and one elevator fell. One of the plane's engines crashed into an elevator shaft, screeched 79 floors, fell on the cab, carried it down to wreckage in the basement. The other engine and other heavy parts ripped through seven inner walls, then tore a hole in the south side of the building—90 feet from the point of crash. The wreckage fell in a sculptor's 12th-floor penthouse studio in a building across the street, caused another fire.

On the streets, 913 feet below the crash area, jagged bits of wings, hunks of metal and stone fell as far as five blocks away.

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.

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.
When the smoked cleared, fourteen men and women were killed in the accident, including Lt. Colonel 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 fatalities of this mishap were:

 Aboard the North American B-25D Mitchell #41-30577, and named "Old John Feather Merchant":

Lt Col William Franklin Smith, Jr.
SSgt Christopher Domitrovich
AMM2c Albert Perna
Inside the building (Office of the Catholic War Relief Services):
Paul Dearing
Margaret Mullins
Patrica O'Conner
Anne Garlach
Jeanne Sozzi
John Judge
Joseph Fountain
Mary Kedzierska
Mary Lou Taylor
Lucille Bath
Maureen Maguire

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