Since aircraft were first implemented in the early 20th century, the miracle of flight has been tempered with tragedy and devastation. When pondering aviation disasters, a few famous plane crashes may immediately come to mind. The 1985 mechanical failure of Japan Airlines Flight 123 remains the largest single aircraft accident in history. The terrorist attacks of 9/11 resulted in the largest single-day loss of life in commercial aviation. Malaysia Airlines 370 seemed to vanish into thin air in 2014, with all 239 people on board never to be seen again.
However, few people know of 1945's B-25 crash, in which an Air Force bomber crashed right into the Empire State Building.
On July 28th, 1945, a B-25 Mitchell bomber was being piloted by Lieutenant Colonel William F. Smith Jr. He was on a routine personnel transport mission, traveling from Massachusetts’ Bedford Army Air Field to the Newark Metropolitan Airport in New Jersey. When Smith asked for clearance to begin the landing process, he was advised there was zero visibility, yet he threw caution to the wind and proceeded anyway.
As Smith pushed onward, the plane became enveloped by a haze of fog. Disoriented by the dense conditions, he turned right after passing the Chrysler Bulding, instead of left. Shortly thereafter, at 9:40 in the morning, the aircraft collided with the Empire State Building’s northern side.
The plane crashed into the building between the 78th and 80th floors, where the War Relief Services and National Catholic Welfare Council offices were located. The B-25 left an 18-by-20-foot hole in the structure—but that’s not all. Upon impact, one of the engines shot all the way through the building and out the southern wall. It continued to propel itself an additional block before plummeting 900 feet to the roof of a nearby building. That building then caught fire, causing the complete destruction of a penthouse art studio.
But what of the other engine? Along with a portion of the landing gear, it toppled down an elevator shaft within the Empire State Building, where it caught fire. The blaze was brought under control within 40 minutes. It remains the highest structural fire to ever be extinguished by firefighters.
At the time of the crash, there were approximately 60 sightseers on the observation deck of the 86th floor. A total of 14 people died in this terrible collision, including 11 civilians, along with Colonel Smith, Staff Sergeant Christopher Domitrovich, and Navy Aviation Machinist’s Mate Albert Perna. Perna's body wasn’t discovered until two days after the crash, when search crews located it at the bottom of an elevator shaft. As for Smith and Domitrovich’s bodies, they had been burned beyond recognition.
Some survivors did not emerge unscathed, and suffered severe injuries from the disaster. When the plane struck, elevator operator Betty Lou Oliver had been in an elevator car on the 80th floor. The impact tossed her from the car, and ultimately caused significant burns across her body. When first aid workers reached her, they brought her to another elevator to move her down to the ground floor. However, the crash had damaged that elevator’s cables. With Oliver still inside, the car plunged 75 stories, all the way down into the basement. Against all odds, Oliver survived—though she did break her pelvis, back, and neck in what remains the world record for the longest survived elevator fall.
A silver lining among the devastation was the passage of the Federal Tort Claims Act of 1946—a bill that would grant private citizens the right to sue the federal government. It had been pending in Congress for over two decades, but gained momentum after the Empire State Building tragedy. The act was ultimately passed eight months later, and included retroactive provisions to claims that occurred in 1945, so that those affected by the accident could seek recompense from the government.
This incident is one full of death, pain, structural devastation, and record breaking crises. Yet you wouldn't know it from the aftermath. Less than 48 hours after a plane had crashed into its side, the Empire State Building was miraculously open for business on Monday morning. Today, the incident is all but forgotten by New Yorkers.