July 28, 1945 - Plane Hits Building - Woman Survives 75-Story Fall
By William Roberts
NEW YORK Lost amid the hoopla surrounding the celebrations of the end of World War II has been the 50th anniversary of the army plane crash into the Empire State Building. Many do not know of the tragic incident of July 28, 1945 -- the day a B-25 bomber, lost in fog, rammed into what was then the world's tallest building. Fewer, still, remember the miraculous survival of the woman who fell 75 stories when the cables to her elevator were severed.
Lieutenant Colonel William F. Smith, Jr., a decorated veteran of 100 combat missions, was piloting the bomber from his home in Bedford, Massachusetts to Newark, New Jersey to pick up his commanding officer, before returning to home base in South Dakota. The flight plan called for Smith to land at LaGuardia Airport. A dense fog over the city led the air traffic controller to direct that a landing be made. Smith, however, apparently believing he could maneuver safely through the fog, asked and received permission to fly on to Newark -- on the other side of Manhattan from LaGuardia. The last thing the air traffic controller told Smith was, 'At the present time, I can't see the top of the Empire State Building.'
The War Department, now a section of the Defense Department, later determined the pilot erred in judgment when electing to fly over Manhattan in the weather conditions which prevailed at the time' -- Smith should never have been cleared to proceed on to Newark. Disoriented by the dense fog, he apparently believed he was on Manhattan's west side.
Smith's final blunder came when he passed the Chrysler Building. Had he kicked the left rudder, he would have been safe; instead, he went right rudder and directly on a path to the Empire State Building. At 200 miles per hour, the unarmed trainer bomber screamed down 42nd Street and banked south over 5th Avenue. The pilot tried desperately to climb, but it was too late. At 9:40 that Saturday morning, the B-25 slammed into the 79th floor of the Empire State Building.
Luckily, the accident occurred on a weekend, with only about 1,500 people in the building -- compared with the 10,000-15,000 on an average weekday. Still, 14 died in the accident -- 11 in the building, plus Colonel Smith and the other two occupants of the plane. Hardest hit was the Catholic War Relief Office on the 79th floor, directly in the path of the bomber. Eight relief office workers were killed.
Extensive Damage Reported
Damage to the building and the surrounding area was extensive. An 18-by-20 foot hole was gouged by the B-25, and one of the plane's engines plowed through the building, emerging on the 33rd Street side and crashing through the roof of a neighboring building. Upon impact, windows shattered, and glass fell to the street. When the bomber hit, its fuel tanks exploded, sending flames racing across the 79th floor in all directions. According to Althea S. Lethbridge, a secretary for a trading company on the 72nd floor, 'Everything shook. (At the window), we saw flames below and above us. It was scary; we didn't know how fireproof the building was.'
Lethbridge and those not severely injured had to walk 70 flights down the darkened stairwell. Many reported seeing flaming debris fall down the elevator shafts. Unaware that the plane's other engine and part of its landing gear had fallen through the elevator shaft, rescue workers used elevators to transport casualties.
Unbeknownst to rescuers, when the hoist and governor cables of one of the elevators had been severed, ropes to other cars had been weakened. Nevertheless, the elevators had to be used to transport those severely injured, including Betty Lou Oliver. As the plane hit, Oliver, an elevator operator, was blown out of her post on the 80th floor and badly burned. After receiving first aid, she was put in another car to go down to an ambulance. As the elevator doors closed, rescue workers heard what sounded like a gunshot but what was, in fact, the snapping of elevator cables weakened by the crash. The car with Oliver inside, now at the 75th floor, plunged to the sub-basement, a fall of over 1,000 feet. Rescuers had to cut a hole in the car to get to the badly injured elevator operator.
Despite a harrowing experience, Oliver survived, due in large part to the elevator safety devices which served their function, though perhaps not as envisioned. The elevator car safety could not set because the governor cable had been severed by the plane's impact. Therefore, other factors contributed to slowing the elevator and 'cushioning' its fall. As the elevator fell, the compensating cables, hanging from beneath the car, piled up in the pit and acted as a coiled spring, slowing the elevator. Also, the hatchway was of a 'high-pressure' design, with minimum clearance around the car. In such a small space, the air was compressed under the falling elevator. With such a tight fit of the car in the hatchway, the trapped air created an air cushion in the lower portion of the shaft -- thereby further slowing the elevator car and allowing its occupant to survive.
Though this accident can certainly be noted as a tragedy, some comfort can be found; the loss of life was certainly not as great as it could have been. Had it occurred on a weekday, the accident would have claimed many more casualties. If the plane had been a fully armed B-25 bomber instead of a trainer, the destruction and devastation could have been catastrophic. In addition, had the elevator been installed improperly or had its safety devices been of poor quality -- even though they may not have worked exactly as envisioned, they still performed their duty by saving a human life -- Ms. Oliver could not have fallen 1,000 feet in an elevator and lived to tell about it.
In the March 1957 Reader's Digest, an article was published concerning the 'Nightmare on the 79th floor of the Empire State Building.' Following the Reader's Digest report, a letter was written by an Otis Elevator Company supervisor who was in charge of the elevator repair. The writer, who wished to remain anonymous, presented a detailed and colorful explanation of the damage and extensive repair effort. Following is a synopsis of the elevator supervisor's report.
I was superintendent for Otis Elevator Company and in charge of installing the 69 elevators when the Empire State Building was erected in 1930-31. When the steel was up to the main floor, I got in with my men -- the first week in May 1930. On May 1, 1931, the building with the elevators was completed, a remarkable undertaking in so short a time. On that day, we had lunch on the 86th floor. The party included James Walker, then New York City mayor; Franklin D. Roosevelt, then governor of the state; and my good friend Al Smith, ex-governor and president of the Empire State Corporation.
While the building was under construction, I always had a car running, so I could take Governor Smith and his party to the top. Architects and construction men from all over the world visited the building while it was under construction.
In September, at the peak, 3,500 men worked on the construction, and temporary elevators had to take them up and down. They never walked much -- six stories, at the most, to the top of the steel.
When the army bomber struck the building, I was called in to take charge of repairing the damage and get all 11 elevators running up to the 80th floor -- ten Bank 'G', one freight and #2 tower car, from 79th to 86th floor.
One plane motor went right through the bottom of the car equipment, hitting one of our guide rails (3-1/2 x 5"), doubling it in a 'V' shape. The motor then went through the building, tore a hole 20 feet wide, took the windows and wall down with it (78 floors) and landed in a building across the 33rd Street side. The plane was moving upward when it struck. (The pilot must have seen the building.) Walls between the three columns were torn 40 feet wide, the plane taking bricks and windows from the 78th and 79th floors with it, as well as one 10" I-beam -- eight feet inside the building -- supporting the 79th floor; the 20 foot long beam had a 30" bow. The plane penetrated the #6 and #7 car hatch walls, cutting the cable on the #6 car that was on its way down. Our selector in the motor room indicated the cables were cut when the car was at about the 38th floor.
All the governor and safety cables were sheared, so the car went into free fall. Fortunately for the female operator, the safety cable was severed; if not, the governor in the motor room would have applied the safety device under the cable. The car would then have stopped at the 34th and 35th floor in a blind hatch (blind hatch means no doors from the 40th to the main floor express cars) -- with marble and brick walls to break through to find where the car was located. When anything like that would happen, a mechanic can take the people off to the car next to his. Doors exist between the cars for that purpose, but the #7 car was hanging in the cables and burning on the 80th floor. The #6 car was afire -- it, too, stuck up there. The girl operator might have died from smoke suffocation.
A few seconds later, the car was in the basement. Fortunately, a basement door was in the #6 car shaft. The car doors were completely ripped out. No doubt, the air pressure -- caused by the car coming down -- blasted open the door in the pit. The operator stood in the corner, where the car switch was located. The rest of the car was filled with steel, bricks and plane parts. It surprised me that she was not more badly hurt.
When the installers first tested the safeties on the elevators, they had full load capacity -- 3500 lb -- in the car and ran them at 1,200 fpm from the tenth floor right down to the oil bluffers in the pits.
Now, the car was empty, and the cables under the car formed another cushion. The counterweight (balancing weight) was at about the 50th floor when the cables were cut. Over 10,000 lbs of iron started down. The two safety cables, also cut, struck the pit buffer block, went through 12" of concrete, shearing thirty 1" rivets; two 15" channels imbedded in concrete. (The column was only five feet away from the buffer block, the buffer piston and the weight oil buffer.) A steel rod -- 4" and about nine feet long -- went right through the concrete, broke a water main pipe, flooded the sub-basement, went through an 8" solid brick wall and landed in a storeroom in the sub-basement.
This was in addition to the oil, gas and bodies of the people from the 79th floor. We had the police emergency squad with us for ten days. When cleaned from the top of the car, we had to cut the cable by hand to get them out. It was a mess to clean up!
The motor went through the doors, the #6 and #7 cars, and over the hall, taking the wall and hatch doors with it down the #2 hatch. The motor cut the cables to that car. Cars #1 and #2 were shut down on the main floor and only slid down the bumpers with all the cables, doors, plane motor and parts on top of the #2 car. The counterweight was up at the 80th floor. When the cables were cut, 10,000 lbs of steel started down, but luckily, the two governor cables were okay. The governor and safety caught the weight at the 76th floor and hung there. When the #6 car was on the way down, the #7 car operator stood at the 80th floor -- awaiting orders from the starter at the main floor for the signal to start down. When the plane struck, the operator was blown out into the hall.
The #7 car hanging in the cables (at the 80th floor) was all burnt up. The metal trim and car-operating switch were all melted. The guide rails were all knocked out under the car at the 79th floor.
Five months after the accident, the girl (Betty Lou Oliver) who was in the #6 car visited the building. I talked with her. She did not know what happened. It was over in a few seconds. She took one of the cars and made a full trip with it. That took 'guts' after all she had been through.
I was there one year before the job was finished. The #1 car got all busted up and had to be replaced. In a week, we had six cars in operation, next #1-2 cars and finally #6-7 cars. We had some job keeping the men's time and the materials straight. The Army had to pay for all damage done by the bomber; the First Insurance Company paid for the damage by fire.
We had to replace all our equipment in four hatches from the 76th floor to the top, replacing all electric conduits and wiring from the 64th floor up. We had to get in an elevator hoist containing 5,000 ft of 1/2" steel cables on it. One armature had a cracked shaft; we had to replace it: a weight of 9,500 lbs. We took it in on the main floor, hoisted it up to the 79th floor in the #6 hatch, hauled it over the hall to the #2 tower car hatch, picked it up with a chain fall -- attached to the main rails -- to the 82nd floor motor room and up in the machine. The damaged armature had to go down the same way.
We also had to hoist the #6 counterweight frame up to the 80th floor.
Only one elevator fell. Number 1 and 2 cars were shut down at the main floor; #6 car was in the pit, with the #7 car hanging in the cables on the 80th floor. Cars three, four, five, eight, nine and ten were in their own wells. The only damage to them was hatch doors at the 78th and 79th floors being scorched by fire. We had to put in new compensating cables on the freight car running from the sub-basement to the 80th floor. They were damaged when the pit filled with water from the broken water main. After the pit was pumped and safety switches dried, we had that car running in a few days.
Part of the plane slid down the outside of the building on the 34th Street side, landing on the opposite side of the 5th floor. Some boys picked up plane parts and sold them to souvenir hunters on the street.
This historical report serves as a tribute to the members of the elevator industry who sprang into action to repair the elevators which were severely damaged during this unusual accident. Although this event was the first high-rise building catastrophe which wreaked havoc on elevator and escalator equipment, it would certainly not be the last.
The World Trade Center and Oklahoma City bombings, as well as earthquakes and fires which have occurred in and around high-rise structures over the last 50 years, have presented severe challenges to our industry's field personnel and repair mechanics. Through dedication and hard work, field workers have, time and again, restored elevator service in record time and, as so often reported in ELEVATOR WORLD, assisted in the rescue of building occupants. This report is dedicated to the elevator industry personnel who have risen to the occasion and performed with selfless, heroic effort.
REPRINTS of this historical supplement can be obtained by contacting Stacie Hyman at phone: (334) 479-4514.
ELEVATOR WORLD UNCOVERS NEW INFORMATION
During the investigation into the event at the Empire State Building, ELEVATOR WORLD uncovered a major misconception regarding the circumstances.
It has long been believed that the elevator operator who fell 75 stories was operating her elevator when the crash severed the cables to her car. Our recent investigation found that Betty Lou Oliver had actually been thrown from her car station post during the aircraft's initial impact. When the plane hit the building, Oliver's car was parked at the 80th floor. The crash severed elevator cables, but those supporting Oliver's car remained intact, although they and many other cable attachments were weakened. After receiving care for severe burns, Oliver was taking another elevator down from the 80th floor first aid station when this second car's weakened cables snapped, sending Oliver and her elevator on a 1,000-foot plunge.
Fortunately, the reports of Oliver's survival had not been exaggerated, nor were the accounts of her remarkable experiences during the plane's initial impact, its resulting explosion and fire, and the 1,000-foot free fall into the elevator pit.
An often-asked question is, 'Has there even been a case where all elevator ropes were severed, causing an elevator to fall?' The plane crash into the Empire State Building is the only such occurance. This final report provides an accurate accounting of one of the most unusual accidents to ever occur in elevator and aircraft history.
Coincidentally, just two weeks after the 50th anniversary of the B-25 crash, another accident occurred at the Empire State Building. Though far less severe, this most recent incident may be of greater concern to the elevator industry, for reasons behind the elevator crash of September 12, 1995 are still unclear. There were no fatalities, but four occupants slammed into the car ceiling -- receiving head, neck and back injuries when their elevator missed its 80th floor stop and crashed into the top of the shaft. Investigations into the accident are underway, and details pertinent to the elevator industry will be reported by ELEVATOR WORLD.