This Date in History: The Empire State Building Crash

This Date in History: The Empire State Building Crash

Seventy years ago today, folks in New York City probably thought they were under attack. That's the day a B-25 Mitchell bomber crashed into the Empire State Building.

Unlike what would happen years later, when the World Trade Centers were attacked, this crash was an accident.

The fighting in Europe had ended, but World War II was still blazing in the Pacific. Military planes were often seen in the skies over New York. Trouble is, nobody saw this one.

William Franklin Smith, Jr. was at the controls of the Old John Feather Merchant . He was flying the bomber from Bedford Army Airfield in Massachusetts to Newark Airport in New Jersey. Smith asked for clearance to land but was advised of zero visibility.

Dense fog had settled in over Manhattan and it was about to cost the pilot and 13 others their lives. As Smith passed the Chrysler Building on his approach to the airport, he inexplicably began turning right instead of left.

At 9:40 a.m., the aircraft slammed into the world's tallest man-made structure, between the 79th and 80th floors.

Smith and his two passengers were killed instantly, although the body of Navy aviation machinist Albert Perna, who was hitching a ride, was not found until two days later. It had gone through an elevator shaft and fallen to the bottom.

Eleven people in the building died and Betty Lou Oliver was almost one of them. The elevator operator was injured and needed to be taken to ground level for transport to the hospital.

Problem is, she was loaded onto another elevator that, unknown to rescuers, had weakened cables. When they snapped, Oliver was sent on a 75-story plunge. She still holds the Guinness World Record for the longest survived elevator fall.

As you might expect, the building caught fire, but the flames were extinguished rather quickly, in a mere 40 minutes. It remains the only fire at such height to be brought under control.

The one reminder of that fateful Saturday, is a missing stone in the building's façade. You might look for it the next time you visit the Empire State Building.

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