Among humanity’s most symbolic and mechanically impressive achievements is the airplane. For generations, mankind has fantasized of soaring to the heavens beyond, and these massive, pressurized tubes screeching above us represent our closest realization of that dream. However, just as the mythical Icarus fell victim to his own hubris by flying too close to the sun’s rays, perhaps humanity’s experiences with flight have flown too far for their own good, resulting in easily avoidable losses of life and property. Such was the case in the year 1945 when a U.S. Air Force B-25 Mitchell bomber found itself lost in the thick fog over New York City and crashed into the iconic Empire State Building.
The story begins on July 28, 1945, with Lieutenant Colonel William Franklin Smith Jr. piloting the bomber on a routine transport mission from Hanscom Air Force Base in Massachusetts to Newark Metropolitan Airport in New Jersey. Despite warnings of zero visibility, Smith proceeded along his designated flight path. Clearly disoriented by the fog, Smith was well off his actual path, colliding his plane with the north side of the Empire State Building at 9:40 a.m. Smith’s aircraft left a hole almost 40 feet in diameter between floors 78 and 80 of the building, which housed the offices of the National Catholic Welfare Council. One of the plane’s engines flew through the building’s south side, landing on the roof of a nearby building almost a full block away, destroying a penthouse art studio. The plane’s other engine fell down one of the building’s elevator shafts. The resulting fire was extinguished within an hour of the plane’s impact.
In total, fourteen lives were lost as a result of the accident. Included among the fatalities were Smith, two other servicemen aboard the bomber, and eleven of the building’s inhabitants. Notably (and rather morbidly), Smith’s remains were not found until two days after the incident, when search crews finally found his body at the bottom of an elevator shaft. An elevator operator named Betty Lou Oliver was also injured when the cables for her elevator were snapped by debris from the impact, causing her elevator to plummet 75 stories into the building’s basement. Remarkably, Oliver survived and was found by rescuers amongst the building’s rubble. To this day, she holds the Guinness World Record for the “Longest survived elevator fall.”
As a testament to American ingenuity and the capitalist machine, the Empire State Building’s overall structural integrity was not compromised at all by the crash, and the majority of the building was open for business the following Monday. However, more positively, this incident would be the impetus for the passage of the Federal Tort Claims Act of 1946, permitting private parties to sue the United States in federal court over torts, or wrongdoings, committed by persons acting on behalf of the United States. After the bill stood in congressional gridlock for over two decades, a bomber crashing into an American skyscraper proved itself to be adequate enough reason for the act’s passage.