A dense fog crept across the slate gray New York City sky on Saturday July 28, 1945. The war in Europe was largely over, V-E Day had been declared about seven weeks earlier, and the fall of Japan was near. The city was going about its business shortly before 10 a.m., when a US Army bomber plane carrying a pilot and two other men from Bedford, Massachusetts to LaGuardia Airport made a wrong turn and slammed into the north side of the Empire State Building about 935 feet above the street.
The building topped 1,200 feet, so the plane, which was going more than 200 miles per hour, rammed through the 78th and 79th floors with tremendous force, sending an elevator plummeting 75 floors and triggering three separate heavy fires.
The pilot and the two other men in the plane—including a Navy machinist from Brooklyn—were killed instantly and 11 people in the building or on the ground died. The crash triggered a brief panic, launched several investigations and drew both praise and condemnation of the City’s feisty Mayor, Fiorello La Guardia.
Telegrams, letters, secret communications between the City and Washington, and a detailed and heavily-illustrated Fire Department report in the Municipal Library and Archives recount the events of that dark day.
At approximately 9:50 a.m., the pilot of the doomed B-25 Mitchell Aircraft, William F. Smith Jr., radioed the La Guardia Tower saying the plane was about 15 miles south of LaGuardia and asked about the weather at nearby Newark Airport. Following procedure, the LaGuardia Tower told the pilot to call Newark for the local weather.
“Within two minutes, this plane showed up directly southeast of LaGuardia and (LaGuardia Tower chief Operator Victor) Barden believing it intended to land, gave it runway, wind direction and velocity,” the memo read. “The pilot stated he wanted to go to Newark.”
Airways Traffic Control radioed that the weather at Newark was 600 feet ceiling and said the plane should land at LaGuardia. Since it was a bomber, the tower contacted Army Advisory, which said visibility was a little better than that and the tower asked the pilot what he wanted to do.
Smith, a West Point graduate who had completed 42 missions in Europe during the war, made the fateful decision to proceed to Newark. The tower then cleared him to land at Newark, but noted they were “unable to see the top of the Empire State Building” and warned the pilot that if he did not have three miles of forward visibility, he should return to LaGuardia.
But visibility was near zero and the pilot apparently became disoriented, turned the wrong way after skirting the Chrysler Building on 42nd Street and almost immediately slammed into the north side of the Empire State Building. The first fire alarm was pulled at 9:52 a.m. and Mayor LaGuardia quickly rushed to the scene amid arriving fire trucks, ambulances and police cars.
An extensive Fire Department report issued by Commissioner Patrick Walsh on August 21, 1945, picks up the story, reporting that the plane hit between the 78th and 79th floors with such tremendous force that it made an 18-by-20-foot hole in what was then the tallest building in the world. One engine flew through the south side of the building and landed a block away atop the roof of a factory on West 33rd St. The other engine plummeted down an elevator shaft and triggered a fire that lasted more than 40 minutes.
“The wreckage of a giant aircraft that had carried a large supply of gasoline and tanks of oxygen giving added furor to the blasting fire … scattered death and flames over a wide area,” Walsh wrote. “Elevator service to the scene of the fire, some 935 feet above the street, had been disrupted. Parts of a hurtling motor and other sections of the plane that passed entirely through the structure had brought fire to the roof and top floor of a thirteen-story building across the street from the scene of the original tragedy. A third fire had developed in the basement and sub-basement of the Empire Building itself.”
Walsh wrote that the fires were brought under control in 19 minutes and were extinguished within 40 minutes. But, he added, “life hazard was very severe. Persons had been trapped on the 78th and many more on the 79th floor. Persons on the 80th and other floors were exposed to considerable smoke and heat. There was a dangerous possibility of panic among the people in the building.”
In a letter accompanying his report, Walsh praised the Mayor for getting to the scene quickly and making sure that accurate information got out to the public to prevent widespread panic. “Your presence at the scene with its attendant acceptance of the risks and rigors of the situation was very impressive and gave testimony to the cooperation that this department has received from you during past years.”
Miraculously, elevator operator Betty Lou Oliver survived the 75-story elevator shaft plunge, in what the Guinness Book of Records would later proclaim “The Longest Fall Survived in an Elevator.” Soon after the horrific accident, as firefighters were still rushing up to the 77th floor to fight the blaze, Army Lt. General Ira Eaker, Deputy Commander of the Army Air Forces, fired off a hand-delivered note to Mayor LaGuardia “to express the concern of the Army Air Forces for the unfortunate accident which occurred at the Empire State Building this morning.”
He vowed to cooperate with city and federal agencies “to ensure a complete and thorough investigation of the circumstances … It is our keenest desire that everything humanly possible be done for those who have suffered in this unfortunate and regrettable accident and we shall leave nothing undone which lies in our power to that end.”
The next day’s papers—from coast-to-coast—blared the story across their front pages. The New York Daily News story began: “A fog-blind B-25 Mitchell bomber, groping its way southward across Manhattan to Newark Airport crashed into the 79th-floor of the 1,250-foot Empire State Building … turning the world’s tallest building into a torch in the sky high above 34th St. and Fifth Avenue.” That morning the Mayor took to the airwaves with his Talk to the People program, offered condolences to the families of all the victims and read Lt. Gen. Eaker’s letter aloud. (LT2545)
The Archives holds a July 31 story in the Daily Mirror that lent an eerie quality to the story. It started: “The charred remains of the dead … in the Empire State Building tragedy were identified yesterday while souvenir seekers and looters had a ghoulish field day among the debris.” The story said looters invaded the 79th floor offices of the National Catholic Welfare Conference and stole charred stationary and $400 in cash. The thief dropped a bag holding $8,000 in Travelers Checks when police spotted him and gave chase. The owner of the Hicckock Belt Company told cops someone stole $300 worth of belts, suspenders and wallets.
Despite the damage, much of the building was open for business on the Monday two days after the accident. The crash also led to creation of the Federal Tort Claims Act and brought calls from military and aviation experts for better training and safety rules. Brigadier General Robert Travis blamed a rash of accidents on a “lack of knowledge of equipment, lack of discipline and plain bullheadedness.”
Mayor LaGuardia added to the furor over the accident when he told the Herald Tribune he thought the pilot was flying too low, given the number of skyscrapers in Midtown. In response to one critical letter to the mayor, Goodhue Livingston Jr., LaGuardia’s executive secretary, noted that if the pilot “had maintained the proper altitude when flying over Manhattan the accident would not have occurred. Unfortunately, some of our Army Pilots who have been coming into our municipal fields during this war emergency period have on occasion have [sic] not maintained the proper safe altitude.”
An August 13 letter from H.H. Arnold, Commanding General of the Army Air Forces, backed up LaGuardia. Arnold said there was no evidence the plane had malfunctioned, and he clearly pinned the blame on the pilot.
“It appears that the pilot used poor judgment,” Arnold wrote, adding that Smith did not maintain the altitude and did not have the minimum visibility to go to Newark. “He had been warned by the LaGuardia Tower that the top of the Empire State Building could not be seen. Therefore, it may be assumed that he was mistaken in his establishment of his position with respect to the Lower Manhattan area.” Arnold said the military had taken measures to avoid a similar accident in the future by better communication between the military and air traffic control and by establishing local traffic routes for Army aircraft in the metropolitan area.
Unfortunately, less than a year later it happened again. On May 20, 1946, an U.S. Army Air Forces Beechcraft C-45F Expediter slammed into the north side of the 925-foot-high building at 40 Wall Street in a heavy fog. All five crew members were killed.