Had This Crash Happened On a Weekday It Would Have Been a Disaster
On July 28th 1945 at 0940 local time, A United States Army Air Forces (USAAF) North American B-25D Mitchell medium bomber collided with the Empire State Building in New York City. The bomber struck the north side of the building between the 78th and 80th floors- 913 feet above 34th Street. The impact created an 18 foot by 20 foot hole in the north side of the building. The B-25D was flown by Lieutenant Colonel William Franklin Smith Jr. from Watertown in Massachusetts. Smith and his only two passengers- Army Air Forces Staff Sergeant Christopher S. Domitrovich and Navy Aviation Machinist Mate Albert Perna, perished in the crash. 11 people died in the building and 26 were injured. This video was uploaded to YouTube by British Movietone.
Combat Vet Pilot Headed for Bigger Things
LTCOL Smith had recently returned to the States after a tour as deputy commander of the 457th Bombardment Group (BG). Based at RAF Glatton in the UK, the Group consisted of the 748th, 749th, 750th, and 751st Bombardment Squadrons (BS). Smith was the former commander of the 750th BS. The group had flown 235 missions from RAF Glatton against the Third Reich, the last of which had taken place on April 20th 1945. Next up for the 27 year-old Smith was type transition training in the Boeing B-29 Superfortress.
A Simple Plan
Smith’s flight plan that day originated at Hanscom Army Air Base (AAB) at Bedford in Massachusetts. Smith planned to fly to Newark Army Air Field (AAF) in New Jersey. Once at Newark, Smith was to pick up the base commander of Sioux Falls AAF, Colonel H.E. Bogner, prior to departing for South Dakota. Smith went through is preflight checks, warmed up his Mitchell bomber’s two Wright R-2600-92 Twin Cyclone 14-cylinder air-cooled radial engines, and departed Hanscom AAB at 0855 local time. Weather turned progressively worse as Smith flew southwest toward Newark.
What You Can’t See Can Kill You
La Guardia tower warned Smith about the lack of visibility in the area- specifically mentioning not being able to see the Empire State Building. Smith disregarded instructions to land at La Guardia. The Empire State Building was at that time the tallest building on the planet and Smith was flying in dense fog. After narrowly missing another building at 5th Avenue and 42nd Street, the B-25D impacted the building going about 225 miles per hour. One of the B-25D’s engines ripped through seven interior walls and broke out the other side of the building, eventually coming to rest on the roof of a building on the next block. The other engine ended up at the bottom of an elevator shaft.
Incredibly Limited Casualties Given the Circumstances
Many of the 11 killed inside the building were working on the 79th floor. Aviation fuel-fed fires broke out, challenging firefighters and building occupants alike. Heat from the fires caused by the crash caused elevator suspension cables to fail, dropping three cars to the basement. The fires didn’t affect any floors below the 79th.
Uncommon knowledge about the Empire State Building Crash
Miraculously one elevator operator, 19 year-old Betty Lou Oliver, survived her elevator plummet to the basement and resultant broken pelvis, back, and neck. She still holds the record for surviving the longest fall in an elevator– over 1,000 feet.
Reason one why the death toll was as low as it was is that the crash occurred on a Saturday. On a weekday 65,000 might be in the building at the time the crash occurred. There were probably only 1,500 people in the building that day.
Normally the National Catholic Welfare Conference offices where the plane crashed would have 60 people in the offices. There were fewer than 20 there that day.
On the floor above the crash, the 80th, only two persons were at work. The 81st to 85th floors were vacant.
Staff Sergeant Domitrovich had served as a C-47 transport flight engineer with the 72nd Troop Carrier Squadron (TCS). During Operation Market-Garden on September 17th 1944 his C-47 was shot down and he was taken prisoner by the Germans. He escaped and made his way back to friendly lines.
The fires resulting from the crash were extinguished within 40 minutes. The Empire State Building Crash is the only significant fire at such a height to be brought under control.