On this date sixty-six years ago, an accident occurred in New York that has certain parallels with the truly horrifying events of 11th September 2001...
Back on the morning of Saturday 28th July 1945, pilot Lt Col William Smith was trying to navigate his B-25 bomber through increasingly heavy fog. He was advised to land by air traffic control staff at what is now La Guardia Airport,: the operator reportedly stated: “From where I’m sitting, I can’t see the top of the Empire State Building...”
Smith chose to continue his journey, but became disorientated as the mist thickened. He broke Manhattan regulations by descending below 2,000ft and his decision to fly at half that height to avoid the densest area of fog was to have catastrophic consequences. In a sense, Smith was proved right, as the visibility did improve... to the extent that he could now clearly see the skyscrapers that were towering above the plane.
Smith banked to miss colliding with the New York Central Building, but the plane lacked the manoeuvrability to avoid the Empire State Building and, at 09:49 local time, in the middle of a desperate climbing turn, the B-25 bomber smashed into the 79th floor. Burning fuel shot through hallways, staircases and lift shafts, reaching as far as the 75th floor. Fire and debris was showered upon the surrounding area and one of the plane’s engines completely penetrated the building and fell to the ground. The other engine hit a lift shaft and severed the cable sending the elevator car (which contained two women) into free-fall.
Both women were found alive... possibly because the hydraulic emergency braking system had partially slowed the descent, but also because the mass of damaged and coiled cables helped to cushion the landing. Unfortunately, one of the lift’s occupants suffered serious injuries and died not long after she was found, but the other woman incredibly not only survived, but went on to complete a full recovery.
Her name was Betty Lou Oliver, a 20 year-old lift operator and I understand that her survival of a 75-storey free-fall remains a “record” to this day... although I suppose it’s not the sort of record you would go out of your way to try and break... (Betty Lou Oliver lived another 39 years; her death being recorded in 1984)
The final death toll was 14... an incredibly (but thankfully) small number given the nature of the accident. Amongst the dead were Lt Col Smith and his two crewmen; ten office workers also perished, along with the unfortunate woman in the lift. A further 26 people were injured... The impact left a hole in the north face of the building roughly twenty-feet square and this picture was taken from the 90th floor by photographer Ernie Sisto who got two colleagues to hold him by the legs so that he could dangle out of the window and take the photograph.
An amazing picture and an amazing story...
All my own work... almost.