On This Day in Aviation History

July 28, 2010

On This Day in Aviation History: July 28th

On July 28th,

esb-crash-nytimes1945, a U.S. Army B-25D bomber crashes into the Empire State Building in heavy fog, killing 11 people in the building and all three of the plane’s crewmen.

The plane, on its way to Newark from Bedford, Mass., was commanded by Lt. Col. William F. Smith Jr., a West Point grad and veteran of over 30 World War II bombing missions. After encountering thick fog while approaching New York City, he contacted LaGuardia Airport to attempt to land there. Visibility was too low, however, and LaGuardia’s control tower instructed him to continue to Newark, maintaining at least 1,500 feet while crossing Manhattan.

Perhaps Smith mistook the East River for the Hudson and began his descent to Newark too soon, or maybe he just got disoriented in the fog. Whatever the case, soon the plane had descended to around 500 feet and was on a collision course with the 850 foot RCA Building (known today as the GE Building) at 30 Rockefeller Center. A last moment turn averted disaster, alas temporarily. Flying south at 225 mph, they were only seconds away from the Empire State Building.

Witnesses along 5th Avenue and 34th Street, who looked up when they heard the noise of the props, said they saw a plane flying toward the building, only to climb steeply and disappear into the clouds. And then they heard an explosion. The first thought on many minds was that the faltering Japanese had launched a desperate Kamikaze attack in New York. But it was only a disoriented American pilot who had tried to outclimb the world’s tallest building, and the building won.

At an altitude of 913 feet, the 15-ton bomber impacted the Empire State Building’s 34th Street face between the 78th and 79th floors, carving an 18 ft x 20 ft hole in the building’s limestone facade.

Despite flaming debris slicing elevator cables within the building and engines and debris flying into neighboring buildings, all of the dead were contained to the floors immediately impacted and burned by the plane. Somewhat ironically, the offices destroyed were occupied by War Relief Services and the National Catholic Welfare Council, both Catholic organizations dedicated to helping European refugees of the ongoing war.

Hundreds of firemen were dispatched to the highest fire in city history, a distinction that would remain until Sept. 11, 2001. (Sadly, it is still the only fire at such a height that was ever successfully controlled). Their spectacular efforts kept damage to the building very minor outside of the impact floors.



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