Empire State Building Plane Crash: The Story

In 1945 a B-25 Mitchell bomber plane crashed into the Empire States Building in New York City, causing a number of deaths, casualties and millions of dollars of damage. How could such a catastrophic event occur? and what happened in the aftermath? Let’s take a closer look at one of the most shocking aviation accidents in American history.

Image source: Getty

It was Saturday, July 28, 1945 when pilot William Franklin Smith Jr., a World War II veteran with over 30 bombing missions to his name, was flying the B-25 Mitchell plane from Bedford, Massachusetts to Newark Airport. With thick fog making visibility difficult, Smith contacted La Guardia Airport to request permission to land there instead, but they advised him of zero visibility and instructed him to carry on to Newark whilst maintaining 1,500 feet while crossing over Manhattan.
manhattan smog

Image source: Business Insider

It is not clear whether he then mistook the East River for the Hudson and therefore began to descend too soon, or if he just became disorientated because of the fog, but in any case the plane swooped to around 500 feet and was heading straight for the RCA building (aka the GE building) at 30 Rockefeller Center. He managed to avoid crashing into it by swerving at the last moment, but now the plane was on a collision course with the Empire State Building. Smith desperately attempted to outclimb the building, but it was too late; witnesses below heard a huge explosion as the plane crashed into the building.

Image source: Wikipedia

With people below unable to see what had happened due to the extreme fog, many believed it was actually Kamikaze attack by the Japanese. The damage was severe; 11 people in the building were killed, as well as all three of the plane’s crew members. The 15-ton plane had made an 18 ft by 20 ft hole in the structure, where the offices of the National Catholic Welfare Council resided. The resulting fire was dealt with extremely well by the hundreds of firemen dispatched to the scene, and was therefore put out within 40 minutes; unfortunately this is still the only fire at such a height to have been brought under control.

Image source: abc news

One amazing story from the crash was that of elevator operator Betty Lou Oliver, who, after being injured, was sent down in the elevator by rescue workers unaware that the cables had been damaged. The cables snapped, causing the machine to fall 75 stories. She managed to survive the fall, and was later found by rescuers amongst the rubble in the basement. The fall remains the longest survived elevator fall according to Guinness World Records.

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Despite the tragic deaths and an estimated $1 million worth of damage ($13 million today), the building was reopened the following Monday and many businesses returned to work. The crash left an important legacy behind – when the World Trade Center was designed during the 1960s it acted as an inspiration for designers to think about a similar scenario occurring with a Boeing 707 smashing into one of the twin towers (this was before the 767, the plane used in 9/11 was introduced of course).

Image source: New York Times

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