The View From The 79th Floor

Roman Mars: This is 99% Invisible. I’m Roman Mars.

From the always stunning, amazing, award-winning radio diaries. You think I’m exaggerating but I’m totally not…..Here is Joe Richman.

Joe Richman: It was strangely cold and foggy on the morning of July 28, 1945. But World War II was coming to a close and the mood in New York City on that Saturday was cheerful. Millions were eating breakfast, running errands.

One 20-year-old woman was on her way to the 80th floor of the tallest building in the world. Her name was Betty Lou Oliver and she spent her days going up and down and up and down the Empire State Building as the operator of elevator number 6. While Betty worked that morning in her crisp uniform, smiling at passengers, she couldn’t have known that outside the building, a young US Army pilot on his way to LaGuardia Airport was lost in the thick fog and flying low over Manhattan. She couldn’t have known that the pilot of that B-25 had just narrowly missed hitting the Chrysler building then Grand Central. She might have heard the roar of the plane as it got closer and she might have wondered what it was as she got called up to the 80th floor just before 10:00 a.m.

At the exact moment, the plane slammed into the 79th floor of the Empire State Building. Betty experienced every elevator rider’s worst nightmare. Down she fell floor by floor more than a thousand feet to the sub-basement. What happened next, put Betty Lou Oliver in the Guinness Book of World Records, somehow air pressure built up as the elevator dropped slowing the fall. At the same time, thousands of feet of loose elevator cables were coiling up on the bottom of the shaft. When the elevator car reached the bottom, those cables acted like a giant spring to cushion the landing. It was not a gentle impact. Betty broke her back and both legs but she was alive. “There was a great roaring inside my head,” she said, “and blackness.”

Every chapter of history is made of lots of little stories and that was especially true on July 28, 1945, the day a plane crashed into the Empire State Building.

ROMAN: This is the view from the 79th floor.

THERESE FORTIER WELIG: My name is Therese Fortier Welig. In 1945, I was 20 years old and I worked for Catholic Relief Services on the 79th floor of the Empire State Building.

GLORIA BALL: My name is Gloria Ball. In 1945, I was working for the USO headquarters. I was on the 56th floor of the Empire State Building. It was just exciting every time I got off the train and went up to that 56th floor. Those excitements. It was the Empire State Building, tallest building in the world at that time.

MAN: Rising a quarter of a mile straight up into the clouds, the world’s tallest structure, the Empire State Building. From an observation platform, visitors look down on the New York skyline, 1200 feet below.

GLORIA BALL: Everyone on the ground looked so small the cars, the people. You were really part of the clouds.

MAN: The Empire State Building a giant of steel and stone a mark of 20th century progress.

ARTHUR WEINGARTEN: I’m Arthur Weingarten. I wrote the book “The Sky is Falling” about the B-25 bomber that crashed into the Empire State Building. The pilot of the plane was Capt. William Franklin Smith, a highly decorated pilot. Early in the morning on July 28,1945 Capt. Smith left from Massachusetts to the New York area.

THERESE FORTIER WELIG: That morning was a misty, cloudy day at the Empire State Building. We couldn’t really see the ground from the 79th floor.

GLORIA BALL: And it was so foggy outside. I was looking out of the window and there was nothing to see. It was just like pea soup. It was like a London fog.

REPORTER: It was very foggy on the York this morning when an Army B-25 twin engine bomber passed over LaGuardia field and asked for a weather report.

ARTHUR WEINGARTEN: When Capt. Smith called in to LaGuardia field and said, “I request clearance to land,” the tower said, “We have almost zero visibility here. I suggest you do not land here at LaGuardia.”

REPORTER: The pilot was warned that the weather was bad and that the tower of the Empire State Building, a landmark for airmen in this area could not be seen.

ARTHUR WEINGARTEN: Smith said, “Thank you very much,” and signed off. He ignored it. After over 50 missions in Europe, flying in the worst weather conditions imaginable, what could possibly happen to him here in the United States? And so, he started to make a little bit of a turn which brought him over midtown Manhattan, and as he started to straighten out, the clouds broke up enough for him to realize, he was flying among skyscrapers.

REPORTER: On a foggy Saturday morning, five blocks north of the Empire State Building, James E. Yager was dictating into his sound scriber machine a letter to Dean Crawford of the University of Michigan.

JAMES E. YAGER: A letter to Dean Crawford of University of Michigan…

REPORTER: He was interrupted by the sound of a plane roaring down 5th Avenue at less than 1000 feet.

JAMES E. YAGER: [inaudible]

ARTHUR WEINGARTEN: And you can hear him on the tape dictating the letter as the sound of the engines get louder and louder and louder as it passes by his office window. Suddenly his voice stops and a second or so later on the tape, you hear a dull thud which is the impact of the bomber into the Empire State Building.

THERESE FORTIER WELIG: At about 5 minutes of 10:00, I got up from my desk and that was the end of the office as it existed.

REPORTER: We are delaying the start of our regularly scheduled program to bring you a special news report on a crash of an airplane into the Empire State Building. Columbia Stations. [inaudible]

THERESE FORTIER WELIG: I was at the file cabinet and all of a sudden, the building felt like it was going to just topple right over. It just threw me across the room and I landed against the wall. People were screaming and looking at each other and didn’t know what to do. We didn’t know if there’s a bomb or what happened.

REPORTER: A B-25 Mitchell bomber on a flight apparently a routine flight from Boston to Newark or New York City, crashed into the 78th or the 79th story of the Empire State Building, and what the final toll will be, there is no way of telling at this time. [inaudible]

THERESE FORTIER WELIG: On the other side of the office, all I could see was flames. Mr. Fountain was walking through the office when the plane hit the building. Then he was on fire. His clothes were on fire. His head was on fire. 6 of us managed to get into this one office that seemed to be untouched by the fire and closed the door before it engulfed us. There was no doubt that the other people must have been killed.

REPORTER: The fourth alarm fire has drawn every piece of fire apparatus to the busy scene of 5th Avenue and 34th Street in the heart of Manhattan, and hundreds of office workers were trapped a fifth of a mile above the street level.

THERESE FORTIER WELIG: It was a very small universe at that point. You’re sort of stuck there on an island with fire all around us. A couple of the women had passed out from the smoke, and I had a handkerchief in my pocket and so I used that to cover my nose and mouth to protect me from the fumes but I didn’t expect to get out alive. Somebody opened the window and I’m sitting there and I thought about my rings and I figured somebody else might as well have use out of them. So I took them off my fingers and threw them out the window.

REPORTER: We have contacted an eye witness Mr. Phil Kirby of the Grand Advertising Agency. We’ve contacted him by telephone. Mr. Kirby?

PHIL KIRBY: I looked out of the window and it was very, very smoky, terribly smoky. I looked out of the window and I saw two girls trapped on the 78th floor. That’s above our floor. You see, I’m on the 76th. That’s two flights up.

REPORTER: Yeah.

THERESE FORTIER WELIG: A man appeared a few stories down. He looked up and he signaled up to us and I think Charlotte was sitting with her legs dangling inside the office and we were holding on to her. It gave her a better view of what was going on.

PHIL KIRBY: Then one girl got out of the window and I said, “Get back! Get back. Get back!” I said, “The fireman will be here soon.”

REPORTER: Yeah.

PHIL KIRBY: So she said, “Well come quickly because out whole office is in flames. We can’t wait long. Alright you get back now. Be a good girl and get back.”

THERESE FORTIER WELIG: I guess he was trying to give us a little solace that, “I know that you’re there. Don’t worry.” And that was a connection with the rest of the world, you know? We all felt a little better to know that someone knew we were there.

PHIL KIRBY: When the plane hit the outside of the building, it kept on going and the engines continued about 20 feet into the building and went down through the elevator shaft, what was an elevator shaft…..

ARTHUR WEINGARTEN: When the plane hit, parts of the engine flew ahead and severed the lifting cables of the elevators that had been at the 79th floor. Sitting in one of the elevators was a young elevator operator named Betty Lou Oliver. She started to plunge down the elevator shaft from the 79th floor.

REPORTER: Cables of two of the cars were sheared, sending both elevators crashing to the sub-basements of the Empire State Building….

ARTHUR WEINGARTEN: She was alive. She broke her pelvis and her back and her neck but she survived.

PHIL KIRBY: Now Reverend John J. Morrison has just come in and he had just given the last rites to a man who jumped and landed on a parapet. I think it’s on the 60…. I don’t know, 65th to 66th floor. It’s down below anyway.

REPORTER: Yes, I see.

SHAREEN DEARING SEZOSKIS: My name is Shareen Dearing Sezoskis. My father was Paul Dearing. My father was in a corner office on the 79th floor. He either was forced out by the crash and a concussion or he actually had to jump when he saw the whole place on fire. It’s more likely that he had to jump. You know if you were ever up 79 floors and looking down, to think of someone having to jump out of the window up there, that’s what I think of.

REPORTER: We’re speaking from the Empire State Building near the top of the building. The 79th floor where firemen are picking up the debris caused by the crash of a Mitchell B-25 bomber into this building right about 40 feet from where we stand.

THERESE FORTIER WELIG: All of a sudden, there were firemen and they’re coming to rescue us, you know. All dressed up in their raincoats and whatever they wear, you know. It was just wonderful. We climbed out through the broken glass. I was just grateful to be alive.

DON GUTTER: The walls they’re still hot, the brick and stone walls that we have our hand on as we talk, are still hot with the flame that had been out for over an hour now.

BETTY LOU OLIVER: 112 flights later, we got to the bottom floor but we didn’t know what happened until we came out of the building. I see crowds of people, all kind of looking at each other. I said, “What happened? What happened? What happened?” And he pointed up to the 79th floor and I saw the the tail of a B-25 sticking out.

REPORTER: Well, we’re going to get off the air here very shortly because we have the story told now. The B-25 two-engine army bomber crashing into the Empire State Building just a few minutes before 10:00.

ARTHUR WEINGARTEN: That morning, 11 people died in the offices and 3 in the plane, for a total of 14 people.

DON GUTTER: Well, this is Don Gutter and this is the National Broadcasting Company.

REPORTER: We return you now to the music of the first piano quartet. [piano music]

ROMAN MARS: The View from the 79th Floor was produced by Joe Richman, Samar Freemark, and Sarah Kramer for Radio Diaries. If you’ve ever turned on NPR in the afternoon and you hear something beautifully composed, sound-rich, first person documentary that knocked you out, it was probably Radio Diaries. Do yourself a favor. Go straight to the source and subscribe to their newly revamped podcast. It’s so good. You can find it at RadioDiaries.org.

99% Invisible is Sam Greenspan, Avery Trufelman, and me, Roman Mars. We are project of 91.7 local public radio KALW in San Francisco, in the American Institute of Architects in San Francisco.

Comments (19)

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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: http://www.911myths.com/html/empire_state_b-25.html

  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 https://web.archive.org/web/20110710181241/http://www.elevator-world.com/magazine/archive01/9603-002.htm:

    “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.

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