The Forgotten Day a Plane Hit the Empire State Building

RealClear Staff


The 9/11 attacks that brought down the World Trade Center towers in 2001 wasn't the first time a plane flew into a landmark New York skyscraper. It happened on July 28, 1945.

1. A Normal Day

The morning of July 28, 1945, started like many others foggy mornings in New York City. More than two months after the surrender of the European axis powers and the final defeat of the Nazi Party, the U.S. was still involved in World War II, as Japan had not surrendered. But that seemed inevitable; Americans were increasingly in a good mood.

2. Suddenly, an Explosion

The peaceful Saturday morning was shattered by the sound of a loud explosion. What was it? Pedestrians looked up to see the Empire State Building on fire. Had the Japanese attacked?

3. In Fact, It Was One of Our Own

What hit the Empire State Building was a B-25 bomber, piloted by 27-year-old Lt. Col. William F. Smith Jr. The bomber was headed from Bedford, Mass., to Newark Airport. Ignoring orders to land at LaGuardia because of extremely heavy fog, the pilot was flying much lower than the required minimum of 2,000 feet over Manhattan.

4. Wrong Turn

Smith became disoriented by the fog, and started turning right instead of left after passing the Chrysler Building. The plane hit the Empire State Building between the 78th and 80th floors at 9:40 a.m.

5. Destructive Impact

One of the plane’s engines plowed through seven walls before emerging on the south side and exploding on the roof of a neighboring 12-story building. Other debris from the demolished bomber severed elevator cables, sending two cars with passengers inside plummeting 80 stories to a sub-basement.

6. A Massive Fire Breaks Out

Stunningly, the fire was extinguished in 40 minutes. It is still the only fire at such a height to be brought under control.

7. 14 Were Killed

Fourteen people were killed: The pilot (Smith) and the two others aboard the bomber;  and 11 others in the building, mostly employees of the National Catholic Welfare Council on the 79th floor. Smith was not found until two days later after search crews found that his body had gone through an elevator shaft and fallen to the bottom. Elevator operator Betty Lou Oliver was one of the at least two dozen who were injured. Rescuers decided to transport her on an elevator that they did not know had weakened cables. She survived a plunge of 75 stories, which still stands as the Guinness World Record for the longest survived elevator fall.

8. Thank Goodness It Was a Saturday Morning

The casualties would have been much higher if the crash hadn’t taken place on a Saturday morning. Not only would there have been more people in the Empire State Building, there would have been many more people on the sidewalks, where debris fell.

9. It Opened for Business on Monday

Yep, the Empire State Building reopened for business just two days later, and even more remarkably, it took just three months to repair all the damage.

10. How Did the Empire State Building Survive, But the World Trade Center Didn't?

The B-25 was a smaller plane, but still was plenty huge. By comparison, when planes piloted by terrorists struck the old World Trade Center towers in 2001, both buildings collapsed within 90 minutes due to significant structural differences between what were New York’s tallest structures. That’s partly because the WTC towers, unlike the Empire State Building, did not have internal supporting columns to absorb the impact like the Empire State.

11. Watch the Recently Discovered British Movietone News Reel About the Accident

Great footage here.



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