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Today in history... tragedy at iconic skyscraper

12:00am | & News

With the Second World War drawing to a close, America had grown used to news of death and destruction, but it was still shocked by a terrible accident which happened on July 28th, 1945.

Flying in thick fog over New York City, a US Air Force B-25 bomber crashed head on into the 79th floor of the Empire State Building, which at the time was the world's tallest building and an American cultural icon.

Mercifully the force of the impact was not enough to compromise the structural integrity of the impressive art deco building. But it did cause significant damage and claimed the lives of 14 people – the two bomber crew plus one passenger, and 11 people in the building.

The death toll could have been much worse, except the accident happened on a Saturday at 9:40am, when far fewer people were in the building than on a weekday. The pilot had become disorientated in the thick fog and made the fatal error of turning right instead of left after passing another skyscraper, the Chrysler Building. His mistake saw the twin-engine bomber plough into the north side of the Empire State Building, carving a 20ft by 18ft hole in the 79th floor.

On impact the plane's fuel tanks exploded, sending burning aviation fuel into the building and cascading down the outside like a flaming waterfall. All of those killed inside the building were working in the War Relief Services department of the National Catholic Welfare Council, where the crash happened. Some were burned while others were thrown out of the building by the force of the crash and fell to their deaths.

One of the bomber's heavy engines broke free and shot right through the building like a bullet, exiting on the south side. It fell 900 feet to land on the roof of a nearby building where it started a fire which destroyed a penthouse art studio. The other engine and part of the landing gear plummeted down an elevator shaft, landing on top of the elevator which was occupied by a woman.  Luckily the elevator's emergency brake engaged and she was rescued with only minor injuries.

Attempts to rescue the female operator of another elevator went badly wrong when the weakened cables snapped and the elevator fell 75 stories to the basement. Incredibly the woman, Betty Lou Oliver, survived and was found by rescue workers among the rubble. It was to have been Betty Lou's last day at work, as she was leaving to get married. Her ordeal remains the world record for the longest survived elevator fall.

The fire was put out in just 40 minutes, thanks partly to the 14-year-old building's state-of-the-art fire extinguisher system, as well as the heroic efforts of New York firefighters who rushed to the scene. The high-octane aviation fuel also burned off quickly, before it could ignite structural elements of the building. It is still the only serious fire at such a great height to be successfully brought under control.

Most of those killed were quickly accounted for, but rescuers searched in vain for the body of the pilot, Lt Col. William Franklin Smith Jr. It was eventually located two days later in the basement, at the foot of an elevator shaft.

Damage to the building was put at a million dollars, equivalent to around 13 million in today's terms. Yet following a structural survey, much of the building was open for business on Monday morning. By pure luck, no-one was killed or even injured on the ground by falling masonry and parts of the plane. It had also not been carrying any bombs, as it was on a routine personnel transport mission.

Pictured is the damage to the building, where the plane struck around the 79th floor.

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