Graeme Wood

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Empire State Building takes a momentous hit

Accidental 1945 bomber crash recalls the more sinister events of 9/11

Originally appeared in The Daily.

In New York on July 28, 1945, the clouds were low and spirits were high. The war in Europe was over, and although no one knew it, the war in the Pacific would soon be over, too. When Paris was liberated a few months before, Allied pilots performed dramatic aerial stunts, including one that was especially daring: flying a B-25 Mitchell bomber under the Eiffel Tower. In New York, the B-25 would again be the star of the day’s events, but this time tragically. 

The plane, the Old John Feather Merchant, was on a routine military mission, headed from Boston to Newark. The pilot, Lt. Col. William Franklin Smith Jr., got lost and asked for permission to land at New York’s LaGuardia Field. At the field, they replied that visibility was zero, and the controller on the ground warned Smith, “I can’t see the top of the Empire State Building.” Smith veered off course and flew down into Manhattan, then turned to avoid what is now the GE Building at Rockefeller Center. He followed Fifth Avenue south. At 9:40 a.m. he saw the Empire State Building, at least for a moment, when he slammed directly into its 79th floor at 225 mph.

Many in the building thought it had been bombed — perhaps by the Nazis, who had only pretended to surrender and allow their cities to be laid to waste, and who were actually playing possum and readying sneak attacks on American targets. It could have been a kamikaze strike by the Japanese. Another wild rumor, perhaps encouraged by the Orson Welles’ “War of the Worlds” broadcast that had excited panic in the city in 1938, placed blame on Martian invaders.

What happens when a plane hits a skyscraper at full speed? There are, fortunately, few experiments to guide our predictions. The floors around 79 were engulfed in flames. (At 103 floors, the Empire State Building was then, as now, the tallest in New York.) One of the two Pratt & Whitney engines slammed directly through the building, drilling a fiery path through the offices of the National Catholic Welfare Council. It emerged on the south side of the building and wrecked the roof of a building a block away. The other engine lodged in the building, then tumbled down an elevator shaft. The tail of the bomber stuck out of the building. With the war in Europe over, the military had stripped off its camouflage, so its bare, shiny aluminum was visible from Fifth Avenue.

It was the first accident of its kind — and in an indirect way, an experiment that served as a dry run for the 9/11 attacks. As with Sept. 11, the real damage came from fire. Flaming high-octane fuel splattered all over the building, dripping down inside it and blazing for 40 minutes unabated.

One of the casualties was loaded onto an elevator whose cables had been frayed by debris from the crash; the elevator dropped 75 full floors, all the way to the basement. But the woman, an elevator operator named Betty Lou Oliver, survived, later earning laurels from Guinness for having survived a longer drop down an elevator shaft than anyone before or since. This apparently indestructible woman therefore lived through a direct hit from an airplane at 200 mph, followed by a 175 mph encounter with the ground, all within the space of a few minutes. Eleven people in the building died, along with the three bomber crewmen.

And then, miraculously, it was over. The rest of the thousand people in the building on that Saturday morning suffered no ill effects. Within two days, offices reopened, and within eight months, even Betty Lou Oliver was healed. Total damage came to $500,000 — in 2010 dollars, $12 million. The Empire State Building has never had an incident even remotely as violent since, and the city of New York — perhaps used to the carnage, after more than three years of sending its young off to war — suffered no lasting emotional scars.

Instead, the effects of the crash were more subtle, ranging from trivial to vengeful to tragic. Survivor Gloria Pall, now 81, writes on her website that she landed a date with Howard Hughes, the reclusive billionaire, aviator and industrial-strength babe magnet, by telling him she had been present at the crash. Other survivors banded together and used their solidarity to push for passage of legislation that would let them sue the government. They succeeded: In 1946, the Federal Tort Claims Act opened the door to allowing Empire State Building crash survivors, along with anyone else, to bring lawsuits against the government, which previously had enjoyed a high degree of immunity.

But the best-known effect of the crash was its role leading up to the events of Sept. 11, 2001. Leslie Robertson, a building engineer responsible for the structural soundness of the World Trade Center, claims to have had the example of the Mitchell bomber in mind when the Twin Towers were designed. More important, the limited damage inflicted by the 1945 crash allowed any potential terrorist to estimate just how much of a plane-fuel combination would be needed to take down a building. Osama bin Laden was a structural engineer, and possibly took the example to heart, outdoing the doomed Mitchell bomber by a wide margin. A Mitchell bomber carries about 1,000 gallons of fuel. The model of Boeing 767 that hit the north tower of the World Trade Center carries about 23,000 gallons, or about one twenty-fifth of the energy of the atomic bomb that flattened the city of Hiroshima.  That’s a catastrophically deadly load, even in the clearest of skies.

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