Jonathan Salem Baskin

Crash Foreshadowed

Today, an airplane crashed into a high-rise.

It was just before 10 o’clock in the morning on this day in 1945, but the sky above Manhattan was dark due to a thick fog. Lieutenant Colonel William F. Smith was at the wheel of a Mitchell B-25, a medium bomber that had seen wide use during WWII (the war wouldn’t officially end for another two months). Smith was a West Point grad who’d clocked 30 missions flying the plane, and was now making a routine personnel run from Boston to LaGuardia. Visibility was at zero as he approached the airport, however, so the control tower directed him to head across Manhattan to Newark Airport in New Jersey.

That’s when everything went wrong. Whether he was disoriented by the fog or mistook the East River for the Hudson, Smith began his descent too soon. As the plane emerged from the fog at 500 feet, the RCA Building at 30 Rockefeller Center loomed right in front of it. Smith quickly made a sharp right turn and tried to climb. Seconds later, the plane smashed into the Empire State Building, hitting it between the 78th and 79th floors. One of the plane’s two engines flew through the building and landed on a rooftop a block away, while the other spun down an elevator shaft, severing 3,000 feet of cable and sending it into a pile at the bottom. 14 people would be killed in the crash, but Betty Lou Oliver would escape when her elevator plunged 75 floors in freefall. Her landing was cushioned by that pile of cables.

Even rare, seemingly once-in-a-lifetime “chance” occurrences aren’t really surprises.