The formal end of the second World War was less than two months away. Saturday morning, July 28, 1945, Lieutenant Colonel William Smith, Jr. was on a routine transport mission.
Smith was piloting an Army B-25 bomber over New York City to Newark Airport to pick up his commanding officer. However, he mistakenly appeared over LaGuardia Airport instead. Smith requested a weather report because the extreme fog was causing very poor visibility.
Because of the thick fog, LaGuardia officials asked Smith to land the airplane. Instead of landing, Smith requested and received permission from the Army to procede to Newark, New Jersey. He became disoriented and decreased his height in an effort to regain visibility. Suddenly, Smith found himself over midtown Manhattan surrounded by skyscrapers.
He was headed towards the New York Central building, but at the last second, banked west to avoid hitting it. However another skyscraper was in his path. The airplane nearly collided with several other skyscrapers. Smith’s last transmission from LaGuardia was the warning, “From where I’m sitting, I can’t see the top of the Empire State Building.” The B-25 had just passed the Chrysler Building when Smith mistakenly turned right rather than left. This put him in line with the Empire State Building.
At the last moment, the pilot attempted a climb and twist away. But at almost exactly 9:48 AM, the bomber crashed into the north wall of the skyscraper at the 79th floor. The impact punched an 18′ by 20′ hole into the skyscraper where the National Catholic Welfare Council offices were located.
High-octane, aviation fuel exploded into flames down the exterior of the building and into the interior halls and stairwells, reaching down to the 75th floor. An engine slid across the floor and into an elevator shaft where it landed atop an elevator car, snapping the cables. Slowed slightly by safety brakes, the car smashed into the basement. Amazingly, the two women passengers were still alive. The 75 story drop remains as the Guiness World Record for longest survived elevator fall.
The other engine pierced through the South wall to hurtle to the next block. It landed onto the roof of a penthouse and set a fire that destroyed the apartment.
Some crash wreckage dropped to the street sending pedestrians running for cover. However, most of the material fell onto the building setbacks on the fifth floor. The spilled fuel had already burst into flame. The resulting fire was brought under control in about 40-minutes. To this day, it remains as the only fire at that height that’s ever been successfully controlled.
There were 14 fatalities as a result of the accident. Pilot Smith, Staff Sergeant Christopher Domitrovich, and Navy aviation machinist’s mate Albert Perna. Eleven workers inside the building perished in the flames either immediately or later during hospitalization. 26 other people were seriously injured.
Although the structural integrity of the building was not affected, the cost was quite high. It was assessed at $1,000,000 in 1945 dollars (about $13,000,000 by today’s estimated valuation).
The Blue Jay of Happiness notes that the Empire State Building was open for regular business on most floors the following Monday morning.