More than 75 years ago, on one foggy morning, disaster struck when a bomber aircraft crashed into the famed Empire State building in a tragic accident.
On the morning of Saturday, July 28, 1945, with World War II still roughly a month shy of finally ending, residents and businesses of the Big Apple were going about their morning. Meanwhile, a B-52 Mitchell bomber aircraft with two pilots, including Captain William F. Smith, and a passenger was on a routine personnel transport mission going from Massachusetts to New York City despite some hazy weather. Smith, having led many dangerous missions in Europe during WWII, was the pilot behind the plane.
Upon arriving in the New York area, when weather conditions worsened, and with the fog made visibility increasingly difficult, Smith requested a clearance to land but was advised not to, and so he pressed on. After making a turn which found him heading over midtown Manhattan, it was then that some clouds broke apart, and Smith recognized the skyscrapers among them.
Not long after this, at 9:40 a.m., the bomber aircraft tragically collided into the north side of the Empire State Building, between the 78th and 80th floors, leaving an 18-by-20 foot hole, and killing Smith, the other pilot, Staff Sergeant Christopher Domitrovich, and their passenger, Navy Aviation Machinist’s Mate, Albert Perna¹.
At the time, the crash further killed eleven civilians working within the building’s walls and left many more injured. The impact caused one of the plane’s two engines to fly through the south side opposite the crash and go as far as the next block over. It then dropped a further 900 feet before finally coming to a rest on the roof of a nearby building, leading to a fire. The plane’s second engine and part of the landing gear were later found down an elevator shaft; the resulting fire was extinguished within 40 minutes. It remains the only significant one of its kind to be contained at such a height.
A Terrifying Fall
In the immediate aftermath of the crash, one survivor, 19-year-old elevator operator Betty Lou Oliver was found by first responders with burns inflicted from the initial accident. As Oliver was placed into one of the elevator cars on the 79th floor, no one had noticed that the cables to the car had been left badly damaged. As such, Oliver was then sent plummeting 75 stories down before the car finally came to a crashing halt in the building’s subbasement. Miraculously, Oliver survived the terrifying plunge and was rescued, albeit with a broken pelvis, back, and neck. Her ordeal remains the longest survived elevator fall on record.
Eight months after the crash, the U.S. government offered to compensate the families of the victims killed. While some accepted, others proceeded with a lawsuit that resulted in landmark legislation. Under the Federal Tort Claims Act of 1946, American citizens were allowed the right to sue the federal government for the first time.
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My previous stories:
The Calls from Beyond
After disaster struck, one victim’s family receive multiple phone calls over several hours.
¹Perna’s body was not immediately found. His body was later located two days after the crash, at the bottom of an elevator shaft.
Nicole Henley is an East-coast true-crime writer and storyteller who’s into unsolved mysteries and many of the sides to history.