Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Terror in the Skies

Magnet # 304:  Empire State Building

Material:  Resin

Purchased By:  Me

I must admit, back when the Twin Towers were hit in 2001, I didn't realize it wasn't the first time a plane had struck a major skyscraper in New York City. I've since learned that on this day in 1945 a shocking event occurred when a B-25 Mitchell bomber hit the 78th floor of the Empire State Building, then the tallest building in the world. Of course that incident differed from the one at the World Trade Center in that it was an accident, not a deliberate attack, but the fallout was nonetheless sobering.

World War II was coming to an end and Lieutenant Colonel William F. Smith, Jr. was one of its heroes. A West Point graduate, he had gone on to pilot more than 30 successful bombing missions and had participated in over 100 combat missions during the conflict. His mission on July 28, 1945 was to pilot a trainer bomber from his hometown in Bedford, Massachusetts to Newark, New Jersey to pick up his commanding officer. From there, they would go on to South Dakota, their home base. Unfortunately, Smith and his crew of two were not able to make it very far. When they got to New York City, they encountered a thick fog. Smith contacted LaGuardia Airport, was advised of zero visibility, and was recommended to land there. Back then, however, pilots could choose to ignore advice and Smith did so, continuing with his flight to Newark. Ironically enough, the last comment that the air traffic controller made to him was that he couldn't "see the top of the Empire State Building." For some reason, Smith descended to 500 feet, but he made it as far as the Chrysler Building, where, rather than kicking the left rudder, he kicked the right, an act which doomed him and 13 others. He narrowly missed the RCA Building and sped over 34th Street and 5th Avenue at over 200 mph before he realized, to his horror, the Empire State Building was directly in front of him. At that point, he shot straight up and tried to climb above the building but it was too late and he only got as high as the 78th floor before impact. On the street, panic had erupted - many people had seen the plane disappear into the clouds and heard the explosion and thought it was a Japanese Kamikaze attack in downtown New York City. In the building itself, eight relief workers at the Catholic War Relief Office perished in the accident, along with Smith and his crew and three others. One of the plane's engines shot through the building, landing on a nearby building and burning down a penthouse. The other was lost down an elevator shaft, along with some of the landing gear. Nearby, an elevator operator named Betty Lou Oliver had been burned. After she was given first aid, she was put on an elevator so she could head down to rescue crews. However, a sound like a gunshot erupted from the elevator - damaged from the impact, its cables had snapped. Oliver plummeted alone in the cab from the 75th floor to the sub-basement, a fall of over 1,000 feet. And yet, she miraculously survived and was later cut free from the cab by rescue workers. Hundreds of firemen arrived at the building and were able to control the fire - it was the only fire ever extinguished at such a height, a record which stands to this day.

Although what occurred at the Empire State Building that was was most definitely a tragedy, some have pointed out that it could have been worse. An 18ft x 20ft hole was left in the facade, but luckily the plane struck on the weekend, when far fewer workers were in the building. Also, as the B-25 was intended for training, it was not equipped with weapons that could have produced far more disaster. By Monday, parts of the building were opened for work as usual. And the building was eventually repaired. The accident also helped to pass the Federal Tort Claims Act of 1946 which had been long-debated and made it possible for the victims of the crash to sue the government. Perhaps most shocking of all, just about a year later, another plane nearly hit the skyscraper. But laws and technology have changed in the time since those days, making downtown New York City safer from other plane crashes - at least unintentional ones. Yes, the Empire State Building took a heavy blow on this day back then, but it survived and it continues to stand proud, a testament to the power and prosperity of the Empire State.

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