If a pilot heading into the lofty urban jungle of New York City on a foggy morning rejects the chance to land at LaGuardia Airport and is told by the tower ‘From where I’m sitting I can’t see the top of the Empire State Building’, the outcome would not be entirely unpredictable.
That’s precisely the situation that Lt Col William Smith found himself facing one Saturday morning in July 1945 as he piloted a USAAF B-25 Mitchell bomber towards Newark to pick up a senior officer. After showing up over LaGuardia, he requested a weather report and rashly carried on.
Diving low to get his bearings, Smith found himself among Manhattan’s skyscrapers. After avoiding the New York Central Building he weaved between skyscrapers until he suddenly came face to face with the towering Empire State Building. Smith put the heavy bomber into a steep climb and tried to bank away, to no avail. The B-25 tore into the north side, smashing a hole 5.5 m (18 ft) wide and 6 m (20 ft) deep between the 79th and 80th floors, instantly killing the crew.
Aviation fuel ignited, immolating office workers and sending a cascade of fire down the outside of the building, also scorching stairwells and hallways within down to the 75th floor. Debris rained towards the street but, luckily, most landed on the structure’s wider skirt. One engine was propelled right though the building, exploded through the opposite south-side windows and plummeted onto the roof of a building across 33rd Street, starting a fire that consumed the penthouse. Amazingly for such an explosive incident, the death toll was relatively light and there were not many serious injuries.
The fire was put out inside 40 minutes and most of the Empire State Building was open for business the following Monday.
When was the Empire State Building B-24 Crash: July 28 1945
Where was the Empire State Building B-24 Crash: New York City, USA
What was the Empire State Building B-24 Crash Death toll: 14 people died (three crew and 11 office workers) and 26 were injured.
You should know: The B-25’s second engine fell into a lift shaft and crashed down on an elevator car, which went into freefall until somewhat slowed by its automatic braking system. Miraculously, when rescuers reached the basement and untangled the wreckage, the two women in the mangled car were still alive, it remains the world’s longest survived elevator fall.