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Published February 26, 2024

The Empire State Building has been an iconic part of the New York skyline for 90 years. With its stunning Art Deco style, it stands 102 stories tall; the height to the top of the antenna is 1,454 feet, or 443.2m. 

It was built between 1930 and 1931, despite the onset of the Great Depression, and became the tallest building in the world. It held that title for forty years, until it was surpassed by the North Tower, Tower 1, of the World Trade Center.

Aside from record heights, those two buildings ended up with something else in common – plane crashes.

Photo by Todd Quackenbush on Unsplash

This episode was originally a Patreon exclusive.

When American Airlines Flight 11 hit the World Trade Center on the morning of September the 11th, 2001, many at first assumed that a) it was an accident, and b) that it was a small plane. There was, after all, precedent for that.

It was July 28th, 1945, and Army Air Forces Lt Col William Smith was piloting a B-25 bomber named “Old John Feather Merchant” out of Bedford Army Airfield in Massachusetts. A 27-year old graduate from West Point, Smith had not flown a B-25 before, but had spent two years flying a B-17 in combat over Europe. With him were flight mechanic Staff Sgt Christopher Domitrovich, and a last minute passenger, Navy Petty Officer Albert Perna. It was reported that Smith didn’t want to take a passenger, and had already turned another down, but was moved to make an exception for Perna when he heard the reason for his travel. He was heading home on emergency leave to comfort his mother, after his brother had been reported killed in action.

The weather that day was far from ideal for flying; it was overcast, raining and foggy, with low visibility. Smith had requested clearance to fly from Bedford to Newark Airport in New Jersey, by IFR, or Instrument Flight Rules. This is commonly used when visual conditions are poor, relying primarily on the plane’s instruments for navigation rather than flying by sight. 

However, Newark already had too much traffic; they wouldn’t clear him for takeoff until 11am. Smith was expected to pick up his commanding officer, Colonel Rogner, from Newark Airport at 10am. He could, presumably, have called to let Rogner know about the delay, but he didn’t. Instead, he asked about clearance to La Guardia Air Field, just the other side of New York. 

He was given permission to fly to la Guardia under Contact Flight Rules; in other words, he would have to fly underneath the cloud cover, maintaining visual contact with the ground. Under these rules, if the cloud level dropped to 1,000 feet, he would have to abandon the flight and return to Bedford. 

There was one other restriction involved with flying to La Guardia; it was restricted to those who had official business there. Smith didn’t, but he signed a statement saying that he did.

An American B25 Bomber. Source: Wikimedia Commons

According to Arthur Weingarten’s book, “The Sky is Falling”, Smith drew close to La Guardia, and radioed the tower there to ask for the weather in Newark. He was told to radio Newark for that information, but didn’t- he knew he wasn’t cleared to go there. Instead, he got closer to La Guardia, and moved into their airspace. When the tower controllers radioed him to tell him to land, he told them he’d rather land at Newark; he had official business there. 

The question of what to do with Old John Feather Merchant was passed to the New York Airway Traffic Control Center; Chief Airway Controller Allen Morrissey advised that there was still no room for Instrument flights into Newark, and the weather report from 08:30 showed the cloud level at 600 feet, below the minimum for Contact flights. The Tower controllers wanted to land Smith at La Guardia, but there was a problem. 

According to Weingarten:

“At least a half-dozen times during the war the military and civilian authorities had clashed over jurisdictional procedure at the field. The Army Flight Service Center claimed king-of-the-mountain status whenever a question arose over a military flight. Although there was no clear-cut official order separating their powers, the avalanche of red tape resulting from past arguments had given the civilian sector reason to be gun shy. It had become routine to check with the Army before making a decision affecting one of its aircraft.”

So, it was passed to the Army Flight Service Center, who advised that they didn’t have the authority to bring Smith down to land. A new weather report for Newark indicated that the cloud was now at one thousand feet – variable – just at the bare limits for Smith to continue on contact flight rules. 

It seems that Smith was gambling on the controllers’ reluctance to deal with the red tape involved in ordering him down and registering a violation of the civilian airspace rules against him – and he won. 

The tower controllers passed on the new weather report, and told Smith that the decision between landing at La Guardia or Newark was at his discretion. Obviously, he chose Newark.

As he left La Guardia, the tower called again, with one more piece of information about the visibility:

“At the present time I can’t see the top of the Empire State Building.”

The Empire State Building was relatively quiet that day. It was a Saturday morning and many offices were closed, or only working a half day. In addition, the poor weather dissuaded many tourists who might otherwise have gone to enjoy the view from the observation decks.

Some of its tenants were, however, hard at work, and this included the Catholic War Relief Services office on the 79th floor, where seventeen people were at their desks. The war had ended in Europe, but still raged on in the Pacific, and there were many people in need of their help. 

Lucille Bath was at reception; she was supposed to be off that day, but had come in to cover for another employee who was ill. Bookkeepers Maureen Maguire and Margaret Mullins worked in an office behind the reception, on the western side of the building. On the Northern side of the building, a corner office was occupied by Paul Deering, a reporter for the Buffalo Courier-Express who also acted as Public Relations officer for the charity. Joe Fountain, director of the Prisoner of War project, and Mary Kedzierska, director of the Polish Displaced Persons project, had offices south of Deering’s. John Judge, the director of the seaman’s project, and his secretary Jeanne Sozzi had desks by the north wall of the building. Other desks in that section were occupied by secretaries Mary Lou Taylor, Anne Gerlach, and Patricia O’Conner. 

To the south of the reception, personnel manager Anne Regan had an office on the western side, while the pool area housed secretaries Theresa Scarpelli, Therese Fortier, Catherine O’Connor, Ellen Lowe and Charlotte Deegan. On the southern side of the building, the offices of Monsignor Patrick O’Boyle and Father Swanstrom were currently empty. 

The building’s elevator operators that day included Carla Haines, Mary Scannell, John Monte and Betty Lou Oliver, on her last day at the job. Her sailor husband was returning from the war in the Pacific, and she was leaving to go home with him. 

Up in the 102nd floor observation tower, guide Pat Hipwell was giving his undivided attention to the only two visitors to brave the weather – Lieutenant Allen Aimen and his wife Betty. Around forty other visitors were in the observation lounge on the 86th floor, all hoping that the weather would clear up enough for them to see at least something of the view. Tower manager Frank Powell, guard Louis Petly and ticket-taker Sam Watkinson were on duty.

In the streets below, it was the usual hustle and bustle of New York, with pedestrians trying to dodge the weather as they went about their business, until a strange noise caught their attention.

One of those pedestrians was Max Lipstein, from Brooklyn. He later said:

“I was crossing Fifth avenue at 34th street, when I heard a plane flying very low. I looked up. It was a terrifically big plane. All of a sudden it disappeared into the fog at the north side of the building.” 

The Empire State Building, view from 5th Avenue. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Stanley Lomax, a radio sports announcer, was driving through Manhattan when he, too, heard the engines of a low-flying plane. 

“I looked up and then I knew it would crash… Its course was straight down Fifth avenue and the pilot must have known when I saw the plane that it would hit the building. He pulled up a little, but not enough, and the plane crashed.”

Since Smith was flying by sight, it’s thought that he had looked for Ward Island, and its two bridges – the Triborough, now the Robert F. Kennedy Bridge, and the Hell Gate railway bridge – as a landmark to position himself by. With that to his right, he would have turned south-southwest over Hallets Point, and then from the East River a heading of 240 degrees would take him across Manhattan, over the Hudson River, across Jersey City and Newark Bay, and into Newark Airfield.

Because witnesses saw him flying with his landing gear down, it’s thought that he believed he had sighted the very tip of Manhattan; thinking he had flown too far south, he then turned directly to the west, which would bring him in line with Newark Airport, and prepared to land.

However, what he had actually seen was Welfare Island, now known as Roosevelt Island, in the middle of the East River. The heavy fog could have easily distorted his perception, so that with fewer visual cues as to size and distance, the buildings and the island itself seemed bigger. The East River, flowing to each side of the island, Smith took to be the East River on one side and the Hudson River on the other. And, mentally, he was so set on getting to Newark Airport that he was likely keyed up to accept that he was closer than he really was. 

Landing gear down, starting to descend, we’ll never know at what point exactly he realised that he was, in fact, in midtown Manhattan, and below the rooftops of many of its skyscrapers. Weingarten’s book describes Smith retracting the landing gear, knowing the plane would take a full twenty seconds to complete that action, and desperately trying to find a way out of the foggy maze of buildings. Witnesses gazed out of windows and stared up into the sky, astounded, as the plane barely missed one tall building after another. 

Nanette Morrison, working on the 38th floor of 10 East 40th Street, was one of them. 

“I almost waved to them, then I realized they were in trouble. The pilot was obviously trying to climb, but the plane didn’t go up except slowly, so slowly it almost drove you mad, watching his completely futile efforts.”

Finally, Smith’s luck ran out; he flew directly into the north side of the Empire State Building, impacting at the level of the 78th to 80th floors. 

Lipstein, on the street, recalled being too scared to move. 

“I held my head as a big piece of sheet metal came crashing down into the street.

I looked up and the whole top of the building appeared to be one big ball of fire. People scattered like rabbits.”

Weingarten’s book vividly described the scene in the streets.

“For at least five hundred people, the intersection had taken on the terror of a battlefield. Chunks of stone and flaming metal rained down on the four corners bordering Fifth Avenue. Skeletal sections of the plane – wing ribs, fuel tanks, a 58-pound piece of the tail structure, a 109-pound portion of the landing gear – crashed down in an area hundreds of yards in all directions. Jagged shards of glass shattered against the sidewalks, exploding like grenade shrapnel on the roofs of passing cars. Like a biblical rain of fire, hundreds of gallons of blazing gasoline showered down from the blackened sky. Puddles of reddish high-octane fuel formed in the streets, on the sidewalks, trickled along the gutters; miniature lakes erupted into flaming islands as burning drops of fuel set them off in a chain reaction.”

Empire State Building plane crash pictures

Article from 30 Jul 1945 The Danville Morning News (Danville, Pennsylvania)

The scene was much worse inside the building. When the plane hit, the three men inside were killed immediately; Perna’s body, and one of the plane’s engines, was thrown down one of the elevator shafts. John Judge and Jeanne Sozzi were right beside the point of impact, and were also killed instantly. Paul Deering, in the corner office, was probably blown out of his window by the force of the impact; his body would later be found lying on a parapet at the 72nd floor. His was said to be the only recogniseable body found of those killed in the building; and even then, it was only identified by the press card inside his pocket.

Hundreds of gallons of aviation fuel spilled into the building, drenching Mary Lou Taylor, Anne Gerlach and Patricia O’Conner as they tried to run, and engulfing them in flames in mere moments. The fuel quickly spread the fire to other floors, but it was not the only deadly load on the plane that day; there were also six oxygen tanks, which were hurled through the building, into the reception area and the office occupied by Maguire and Mullins. The resulting explosion killed the bookkeepers and fleeing receptionist Lucille Bath.

Maary Kedzierska and Joe Fountain might not have been injured by the initial impact, but they were cut off from escapee by the fierce inferno.

Ellen Lowe, in the southern half of the office, later said:

“It was hell on earth. I was typing. Suddenly there was a blast and our whole office burst into flames. This was followed by thick, acrid smoke…”

Her colleague Therese Fortier recalled:

“In the other side of the office, all I could see was flames. Mr. Fountain was walking through the office when the plane hit the building and he was on fire — I mean, his clothes were on fire, his head was on fire. Six of us managed to get into this one office that seemed to be untouched by the fire and close the door before it engulfed us. There was no doubt that the other people must have been killed.”

Fountain and the surviving women – Lowe, Fortier, Scarpelli, Deegan, Regan and Charlotte O’Connor – gathered in Father Swanstrom’s office, on the south side of the building and farthest from the point of impact. 

Lowe recalled:

“We ran to the windows and hung out to get some air. As we did that, we saw smoke pouring out of the 78th floor. We prayed that the wind would divert the smoke and it did, occasionally, but once in a while great blasts of it would come up to our floor.”

Fortier said:

“It was a very small universe at that point. You’re stuck there in an island, with fire all around us.  A couple of the women had passed out from the smoke, and I had a handkerchief in my pocket, and so I used that to cover my nose and my mouth to protect me from the fumes. And somebody had opened the window. And I’m sitting there, and I thought about my rings. And I thought I won’t be around to have them, someone else might as well have use out of them. So I took them off my fingers and threw them out the window.”

Remarkably, those rings were retrieved by firefighters and later returned to Fortier. 

AI generated image from Midjourney

Despite his horrific injuries, Fountain was said to have taken control of the situation, guiding the women in prayer until rescuers finally reached them. 

Elevator operator Mary Scannell was on the 80th floor at the moment of impact; Arthur E. Palmer and his assistant, D.J. Norden, were working nearby. 

Palmer later recalled,

“We were lifted three feet out of our chairs and thrown to the floor- I thought it was a Jap bomb!”

The corridors were quickly engulfed by flame; as the two men attempted to escape, they found Scannell, badly burned and screaming. She was reportedly so hysterical that she attempted to get out of the window. Fortunately, the men had a claw hammer in the office, with which they were able to break through a wall and drag Scannell to safety.

James Irwin, a management consultant working on the 75th floor, gave an account to the United Press. 

“ A girl elevator operator had just opened the door of the elevator shaft on my floor. The blast blew her all the way across the hall. She is in the next office as I dictate this to the United Press. No first aid has reached us yet. We are isolated. There are at least 11 other casualties on this floor alone. Mostly women, some of them badly burned… The screaming and general hubub up here is so terrific that I can hardly hear over the telephone, but now things are quieting down. All of my windows are gone and the hallways are littered with glass.”

Other accounts describe that elevator operator, presumably Carla Haines, as having the skin “literally peeled from her face.”

The most famous casualty of this tragedy, however, was Betty Lou Oliver. According to Weingarten’s book, she had just started the elevator down from the 80th floor at the time of the impact and, since it was empty of passengers, had sat down on the floor to sing to herself. 

Newspapers carried her story, as she had relayed it to her relatives, just a few days after the tragedy,

“The elevator seemed to stop and shudder for a moment… then it began plummeting downward. I tried desperately to stop it. Then a flash of fire enveloped me and I raised my left arm to protect my face. The fire was gone in a moment and I tried again to work the controls. I picked up the telephone in the cage and tried to call the starter on the ground floor. Nothing happened. I started yelling and pounding the floor.”

She also said that she “felt as though the car were leaving me – I was going down so fast that I just had to hang onto the sides of the elevator to keep from floating.”

George A. Mount, district manager of the Otis Elevator Company, inspected the elevators after the accident and said that Oliver was “saved by a miracle”.

“The concrete floor in the bottom of the shaft was crushed like an egg shell.”

All six cables carrying the elevator car had snapped, as well as the automatic braking cable.

It fell more than a thousand feet, or 300m, into the building’s sub-basement; there, as described by reporters;

“The elevator crashed against an oil buffer in the bottom of the pit, drove the buffer cylinder through the car, from bottom to top, and smashed the floor – all but about eight inches in one corner where the girl was standing.”

The first rescuer to reach Oliver was 17-year-old Coast Guard Hospitalman Donald Molony. He had been out on the street when the plane crashed, debating whether to visit the top of the Empire State Building despite the weather or just take in a movie. He leapt into action, rushing into a drug store on the ground floor of the building and demanding:

“…a first aid kit, the largest and most complete one you’ve got! I need lots of bandages, burn ointment and alcohol!” He also grabbed several vials of morphine from the store’s controlled substances safe.

He reached the elevator car alongside several firemen; because they were equipped with bulky protective gear, he was the only one able to squeeze into the wreckage. The firemen sprayed water around the area as Molony dug through rubble to find Oliver, severely injured but remarkably still alive. Some sources claim that she looked at Molony and said, “Thank God, the Navy’s here.”

He was able to give her initial treatment, using her own lipstick to mark an M on her forehead so that later medical staff would know that she’d received morphine, and strap her to a backboard so that the firemen could pull her free. 

She was prayed over in the lobby by a Catholic priest and a Jewish rabbi before being taken to hospital. There, despite injuries which included a broken back, broken legs and burns, she maintained such a cheerful disposition that the staff nicknamed her “The Sunshine Girl”. After four months, she was able to leave on crutches – and she stopped by the Empire State Building to try out the controls of an elevator once more before going home.

Betty Lou Oliver returns to Empire State Building

Article from 18 Dec 1945 The Logan Daily News (Logan, Ohio)

Modern accounts sometimes state that she was blown from her elevator car, injured, and placed into another to take her down for medical attention, which then fell. These accounts may be a result of conflating the experiences of Oliver and Haines; the contemporary reports say nothing of this. 

Her survival has been attributed to the fact that the severed cables piled up beneath the elevator car, acting as a kind of cushion, and air pressure in the relatively air-tight shaft may have slowed the descent.

The official death toll for this accident was 14; the three men on the plane, and eleven people in the Catholic War Relief Services offices, including Fountain, who lingered in a coma for three days and received multiple blood transfusions before passing away in hospital. 

An official report for the Fire Department, issued by Commissioner Patrick Walsh, said:

“The wreckage of a giant aircraft that had carried a large supply of gasoline and tanks of oxygen … scattered death and flames over a wide area… Elevator service to the scene of the fire, some 935 feet above the street, had been disrupted. Parts of a hurtling motor and other sections of the plane that passed entirely through the structure had brought fire to the roof and top floor of a thirteen-story building across the street from the scene of the original tragedy. A third fire had developed in the basement and sub-basement of the Empire Building itself.

Life hazard was very severe. Persons had been trapped on the 78th and many more on the 79th floor. Persons on the 80th and other floors were exposed to considerable smoke and heat. There was a dangerous possibility of panic among the people in the building.”

However, despite being the highest fire New York firefighters had ever attended at that point, it was dealt with quickly; the fires were brought under control within 19 minutes, and extinguished within 40 minutes. This was thanks to the fact that the Empire State Building had been built with its own firefighting equipment; there were four hundred fire-hose connections, each of them tied into an eight-inch standpipe system, and six water tanks throughout the building, to ensure that firefighting capability was not dependent purely on the city’s water supply. All the firefighters had to do was bring up the hose, and get to work.

Despite the hole in its side – measuring 18×20 feet, or a little over 5 x6m – the Empire State Building was open for business the following Monday. Complete repairs would take three months and 1 million dollars – equivalent to about 15 million in today’s money. Today, the only sign of the accident is said to be a small patch of soot on the exterior, left behind as a reminder but only really visible to intrepid window-washers. 

Several months after the crash, the government offered compensation to families of the victims. While some accepted, others didn’t, and their lawsuit resulted in the introduction of the Federal Tort Claims Act which gave American citizens the right to sue the government for the first time. The bill had been pending for many years, but this incident drove it to finally being accepted. Introduced in 1946, it was made retroactive to 1945 to allow those affected by the Empire State Building disaster to benefit.

There had already been concerns about military airmen contravening the rules set out for civil aircraft; boosted by this tragedy, this led to the introduction of Standards for the Control of Instrument Flight Rule Traffic in 1946, recognising the need for common procedures across civil and military aviation.

Since 9/11, many people have questioned why the Empire State Building survived this incident, when the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center did not. There were, of course, vital differences.

Firstly, the B-25 bomber measured 53 ft long, with a wing span of 67 ft, 6.7 in. The Boeing 767 measures 159ft, 2in long, with a wing span of 156ft, 1 in; massive in comparison.

Both planes had left for their final flights with a full fuel load, but for the B-25 bomber that would mean 974 gallons, while the Boeing 767 could carry 24,140 gallons. Again, a massive difference.

Thirdly, the speed at which they hit was, again, greatly different, with the B-25 bomber travelling at around 200mph, while the 767 was accelerated to over 500mph.

And then, the construction of the Empire State Building was different to the World Trade Center. The Empire State Building used a 3D grid of steel columns and beams to support its structure, and an exterior of brick and granite.

When the World Trade Center was built, a new design was used to maximise the amount of open space available; its structure was supported by the central core and the outer steel skin.

This meant that the crash at the World Trade Center destroyed or weakened more of the support structure than the crash at the Empire State Building did. In the 1945 crash, the weight could still be carried by neighbouring columns and beams which remained intact, so there was no collapse.

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Sources, References and Further Reading

1945 Empire State Building B-25 crash – Wikipedia 

The sky is falling : Weingarten, Arthur : Free Download, Borrow, and Streaming : Internet Archive 

In 1945, a B-25 bomber crashed into the Empire State Building | The Spokesman-Review

The Empire State Plane Crash, July 28, 1945

Unsung Coast Guard Rescue: The Empire State Building Crash

When an Army Plane Crashed Into the Empire State Building

NEW YORK: In the Clouds – TIME

Plane Hits Empire State Building 1945

Newspaper accounts:

https://www.newspapers.com/clip/86889563/empire-state-building-plane-crash-betty/

https://www.newspapers.com/clip/86889643/empire-state-building-plane-crash-bett/

https://www.newspapers.com/clip/86889700/betty-lou-oliver-returns-to-empire-state/

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