The View From The 79th Floor

On July 28, 1945, an airplane crashed into the Empire State Building. A B-25 bomber was flying a routine mission, chartering servicemen from Massachusetts to New York City.

Capt. William F. Smith, who had led some of the most dangerous missions in World War II in the European theatre, was the pilot. The day was foggy. Smith called LaGuardia Airport and requested a clearance to land. With nearly zero visibility, the tower suggested that Smith stay in the air. He ignored air traffic control and started a descent that took him over midtown Manhattan.

Just as he straightened out, the clouds broke up enough for him to realize he was flying among skyscrapers.

450728 Empire State on fire
Bettman/Corbis. Courtesy of Joe Richman

The bomber crashed into the Empire State Building, the tallest building in the world at the time. The collision killed Smith, two others on the plane, and eleven people who worked inside the building.

When the plane hit, parts of the engine flew ahead and severed the lifting cables of two elevators on the 79th floor. The elevators crashed to the sub-basement. In one of the elevators was a 19-year-old elevator operator named Betty Lou Oliver. She broke her pelvis, back and neck — but she survived.

Courtesy of Joe Richman

It was a fluke of physics that saved Oliver’s life. As the elevator plummeted from the 79th floor, the elevator cables coiled underneath the cab that created a kind of spring that cushioned the fall.

The crash prompted new legislation that—for the first time—gave citizens the right to sue the federal government.

This story was produced by Joe Richman and Samara Freemark for Radio Diaries. The Radio Diaries podcast is produced by Sarah Kramer. Since 1996, Radio Diaries has been producing documentaries for NPR’s All Things Considered, often turning the recording gear over to the people they’re documenting in order for them to tell their own stories.

In 2013, Radio Diaries unveiled Teenage Diaries Revisited, a massive project following up on five teenagers Joe had documented in the late 1990s. It’s kind of like a radio equivalent to the Up series. It’s amazing.

Radio Diaries is also behind some of the most incredible documentaries ever to air on radio anywhere, including Thembi’s AIDS Diary, Teen Contender, and Willie McGee And The Traveling Electric Chair (all of which won awards at the Third Coast Festival).

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Interstitial music is by Keegan Dewitt this week. Get to know him!

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  1. What happened to the elevator brakes you talked about in the previous episode? I assume they were broken by the impact? Were they using inferior elevators?

    1. G

      That spring thing is wrong, the brakes worked in this case and saved this woman. Don’t know where this guy got this “Spring” idea, but its wrong.

  2. Remy

    Loved the episode! Incredibly moving to hear first-hand experiences of such intense situations. Also, I think it’s pronounced “jay-mee”, or perhaps “j’aime” en francais…

  3. Dave

    I thought, as I listened to this, that any of the people who survived this, if they were still around on September 11, 2001, must have had a unique perspective of that event. I was also impressed, listening to the radio coverage from the time, that, when they had told the story, they stopped reporting and went back to the regular broadcast. That would NEVER happen today.

  4. Chaz

    “We’re going to get off the air because we have the story told now” – There’s a line you don’t hear the media say anymore…

  5. Tom M Griffith

    Being a WWII aviation nut, I knew about this crash, and when I heard about “a small plane crashed into one of the Twin Towers in NYC,” in the am on 9/11/01, I immediately thought of the story from 1945. It was “odd” that among the early reports on the radio, they were reporting that a “large military aircraft, a B-52 (!), had crashed into the Empire State Bldg in 1945” (I’m paraphrasing, but this is pretty close to what I heard on the radio). Forget that the B-52 wasn’t even on the drawing boards in 1945, but HAD a B-52 crashed into the Empire State Building in ANY year, the death and destruction might have been a LOT more along the lines of the result of the 9/11 attack.

  6. Brian Meynell

    The fact that a B25 Bomber hit the Empire State Building in 1945, and did relatively little damage to the building’s structure, is proof that multiple story Skyscrapers cannot be totally demolished by being hit by an aircraft.

    1. Tom M Griffith

      The previous reply, if it’s one of those who believe that a large commercial aircraft much, MUCH bigger than a B-25, carrying several times more pounds of fuel than what a fully-loaded B-25 weighs, with a total weight of many times the weight of a B-25, flying at between 500 and nearly 600 mph, vs maybe 200 mph for the B-25 – well, it doesn’t even come close to making the events comparable on this particular level. Also, the structure of the Empire State Bldg vs that of the Twin Towers is vastly different. Check this out:

  7. vhh

    The Empire State Building has vastly more internal steel structure—like a backbone— than do modern skyscrapers such as World Trade Center, which was supported by its steel skin.

  8. The elevator operator was saved by the dampers (large springs and friction blocks) at the bottom of the elevator shaft. What kept her from being hurt was that during her free fall, she floated up off the floor of the elevator. Betty Oliver used the elevator telephone to call for help during the fall.

    Read Sky Is Falling by Arthur Weingarten for more details

  9. Thanks for the cross promotion here. Now I have another great podcast to add to my commute.
    Odd question: Does anyone know the full title of the Piano Quartet at the conclusion of the news broadcast? It sounds like a popular theme, but I’m going crazy trying to find it online. “1st Piano Quartet” was too vague.

    1. Eric

      Hey Rob, random question.. were you able to find the song? Sorry I’m like 2 months late, but I just listened to this episode and am so intrigued by this song!!

  10. What a great episode! However there is one factual error that more research could have avoided; Betty Lou Oliver was burned in the impact, not making phone calls on her lift phone.

    It was when rescuers used the damaged elevator to transport her that the cables broke and elevator plunged. This from Elevator World archived from a 1995 report

    “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.”

  11. Good catch in that major factual error. Thank you! Fascinating history, highlights differences in covering breaking news of this type, then and now.

  12. ghowe

    Do you guys still make podcasts, or have you taken all of that Kickstarter money and headed for the hills? Sheesh, I thought the goal was to make MORE podcasts, not less! It’s been too long between episodes!

  13. wyelkins

    Not complaining, but I thought my podcast app was malfunctioning. Hope you guys are back soon.

  14. I know you were trying to be funny, but please don’t curse anymore, even if its bleeped out. There is precious little I on the internet that is intelligent, creative, thought-provoking and fun – and that I can share with my children.Even bleeping teaches them its okay to curse. It would be nice to know that 99% Invisible is always safe. And you don’t need it, you’re already in with the cool kids.

  15. J Smith

    Coincidentally, the pilot is buried at our family cemetery in Barryton Michigan. Pretty impressive history for him as well.

  16. Teddi Litman

    In the universe of weird coincidences: George Willig, who scaled the south tower of the WTC in 1977, is the son of Terese Fortier Willig. She’s the woman interviewed in this story who survived being on the 79th floor.

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