It was July 28, 1945, the last days of the Second World War. Downtown Manhattan was shrouded in a dense fog that obscured the tallest buildings from view. While the ravages of the war may never have reached America, little did the people of New York know that a disaster was about to strike directly into the heart of their busy city.
William Franklin Smith Jr. was a veteran of the war in Germany. In fact, he’d clocked in more than 1,000 hours of flying time with the 457th Bomb Group. He’d also been awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross, the Air Medal and the Croix de Guerre.
But despite Franklin Smith Jr.’s impressive track record, a number of circumstances were about to conspire to create a terrible tragedy. On that fateful day, the 27-year-old was piloting a standard troop transfer flight. Behind the controls of a B-25 Mitchell bomber, he was carrying himself and two others from Bedford Army Air Field to LaGuardia Airport.
But when Franklin Smith Jr. approached the metropolitan area that morning, air traffic control alerted him to poor visibility, rerouting the flight to Newark Airport. This put the B-25 on a flight path that would take it through the skyscrapers of Manhattan and on a collision course with a terrible disaster.
Back then, the Empire State Building was the city’s tallest structure. And the air traffic controllers were unable to see the top of it. But Franklin Smith Jr. flew on into the maze of towers and skyscrapers in the heart of New York. And at 09:40 a.m., the unthinkable happened.
Flying over Manhattan, with visibility almost at zero, Franklin Smith Jr. became disorientated. The B-25 was flying at around 225mph, relatively slowly, as the pilot tried to pick a way through the shrouded towers. He narrowly averted a disaster when swerving to avoid the Chrysler Building, but then Franklin Smith Jr. made a fatal error.
The course he took to avoid hitting the Chrysler Building sent the B-25 directly into the northern edge of the Empire State Building. Unfortunately, there was nothing that Franklin Smith Jr. could have done at this point. And so the bomber smashed into the famous skyscraper, hitting the building at floors 78 to 80.
The impact was catastrophic. According to a 1945 report in TIME, “The bomber gored through the thick steel and stone of the building as if they were papier-mâché.” But the worst was yet to come. After a few moments, the fuel tanks of the B-25 caught alight, sending flames rushing through the building.
Next, an engine from the jet detached and smashed through the building, flying out of the south side of the tower and apparently soaring for more than a block. It then plummeted some 900 feet before bursting into flames on the roof of a penthouse art studio below, totally wrecking it.
Back in the Empire State Building, the plane’s other engine also broke free. Along with the B-25’s landing gear, it hurtled down the shaft of an elevator, starting a fire that raged for around 40 minutes. The crash left a massive 18-by-20-foot hole in the north side of the building. Parts of the wrecked plane could be seen mangled around the gaping crater.
The plane hit the 79th floor office of the National Catholic Welfare Conference; most of the casualties in the incident were women working there at the time. All three people on the plane, including Franklin Smith Jr., were sadly killed upon impact.
Of the people killed in the crash, some were burned horribly by the aviation fuel, while others were blasted out of the Empire State by the explosion. But it was William Franklin Smith Jr., the pilot of the plane, whose last resting place is perhaps the strangest out of all of the victims.
After all, it wasn’t until two days after that rescuers discovered Franklin Smith Jr.’s body. It turned out that he’d been thrown out of the plane by the initial impact and killed instantly. In fact, he’d been catapulted into an elevator shaft, plummeting to the bottom, and it was there that the remains of the decorated pilot were finally found.
But amid the carnage there are tales of heroism and survival, too. One such concerns Betty Lou Oliver, an elevator operator. She was injured in the initial impact but dragged to safety by rescuers. They then put her in another elevator to take her to safety, not knowing that the cables on the second elevator had been weakened.
On her way down, the cables gave way, and Oliver fell 75 floors to the ground. Miraculously, though, she survived, and rescuers found her alive amid the rubble from the crash. The Guinness Book of Records still states that Oliver is the person to have fallen furthest in an elevator and survived.
That wasn’t the only record that still stands from that terrible day, though. No, the inferno that raged for 40 minutes after the crash remains the only fire that has happened at such a great height to be tamed. Fortunately, where the loss of life could have been enormous, just 14 people perished.
Part of that is due to the fact that the plane crashed into the Empire State Building on a Saturday. This meant that there were far fewer people at work at the time. Essentially, then, a greater tragedy was avoided by coincidence. The place where the plane hit the tower is still marked by missing stone in the famous facade.
Remarkably, on the Monday that followed a good deal of the offices and businesses in the Empire State Building were open. After all, even though the plane had smashed a massive hole in the side of the building, it hadn’t done any structural damage. Therefore, the tower was safe, and people carried on like normal.
That’s not to say that the plane didn’t leave a lasting legacy on the side of the Empire State Building. As well as the scar on the outside of the 79th floor, the cost of the damage done came to around $1 million. In today’s money, the repairs would have cost something like $10.5 million to complete.
On that terrible day a number of factors – from the diversion of the plane to the lack of visibility and the pilot’s disorientation in the fog – combined to create a remarkable catastrophe. Still, it could have been much, much worse but for the quick thinking of rescuers and the sheer dumb luck of the timing of the event.