On the morning of Saturday July 28th, 1945, Colonel William Franklin Smith sat behind the controls of a B-25 twin-engine army bomber, having left from Massachusetts early that morning.
Smith, an accomplished and highly decorated pilot who’d flown a lot of missions during World War II, realised that he would need to make a landing as the weather conditions were extremely poor, and a thick fog meant that visibility was almost zero. He got on his radio and requested that he be given clearance to land at LaGuardia airfield. That request was declined, due to the poor visibility there also, and he was told to maintain his height and keep going. He was even warned that the iconic spire atop the Empire State Building wasn’t even visible in such conditions (although the final spike at the top hadn't been added by this stage, it was still a good landmark for pilots at the time), an added detail that seems almost portentous in light of later events. Smith chose not to obey that particular instruction, and started setting his course to touch down and get his feet back on solid ground.
As he began his descent and lowered his altitude, he realised he’d made a huge mistake; he was in midtown Manhattan, flying among the skyscrapers. Narrowly avoiding a collision with another of New York’s most famous residents, the Chrysler Building, Smith altered his course again and started to pull back up, trying to escape from the dangerous situation that he’d found himself in. There was only one problem. In his way stood a colossus: the Empire State Building.
Pic via Wikipedia
Inside the 103-storey structure, riding in elevator number six, a woman named Betty Lou Oliver had started her day as usual, going up and down the building as a lift operator. It was nearly 10am when the sound of the twin engines of the plane were heard roaring through the streets below, and people craned their necks up to see what exactly was happening. Betty herself possibly wondered that too, as she headed to was headed up towards the 80th floor.
Moments later, the unthinkable happened. Outside the building, Colonel Smith had come face to face with the world's tallest building, and his huge bomber careened into the 79th floor. Betty’s elevator began to plummet, and her cab fell from above into the sub-basement, nearly 1000 feet to the bottom of the building.
Amazingly, a number of factors came together to both save her life and enter her into the Guinness Book of World Records, a dubious honour given the circumstances that she may well wish she hadn’t had to endure. When the plane struck the building, one of the engines continued into the structure and flew into an elevator shaft, severing the cables of the lifts that had made it to the 79th floor. Those cables also fell to the sub-basement, and piled up on the bottom as the elevator rapidly descended from above.
Added to that, a build-up of air pressure caused the falling elevator to slow somewhat, and when it hit the ground, the pile of cables below had a springing effect that lessened the impact. Betty survived with a broken back, pelvis and two broken legs, but she was alive.
Others were not so lucky, as 14 people lost their lives that day, including the pilot, Colonel Smith, and two other aboard the aircraft, as well as 11 people inside the building. To this day, a missing stone in the façade commemorates the place where the plane struck, an event that seems to be largely unmarked and is not very well known, despite its significance. Part of that is perhaps that the building remained standing thanks to its design, despite the damage (an estimated $13 million in today's money) and that it even re-opened on the Monday, given that they felt the the offices were in good enough condition to be used.
That somewhat brushes over the stories of those 14 people who didn't survive, and the amazing tales of those who managed to make it out alive. For those, as well as first-hand reports of the incident, news footage and a recording that just so happened to be taking place at the time of impact a few short blocks away where you can hear the chilling roar of the bomber as it flies down the streets of New York, plug your ears into the fantastic Radio Diaries, which produces some amazing podcasts about stories you might never have heard, but definitely should.