The Day A Bomber Hit The Empire State Building On July 28, 1945, a B-25 bomber hit the Empire State building and exploded. The crash killed three people in the plane and 11 people who worked inside the building. Two women who survived describe the horror.
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The Day A Bomber Hit The Empire State Building

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The Day A Bomber Hit The Empire State Building

The Day A Bomber Hit The Empire State Building

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MICHELE NORRIS, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

And I'm Melissa Block.

A plane crashes into New York City's tallest building, a symbol of strength and American power. It's not the World Trade Center, not 9/11, but decades earlier. The images of 9/11 have overwritten the events of this day, exactly 63 years ago. But the story of July 28th, 1945 lives on in the memories of the people who experienced it.

NORRIS: It was the closing days of World War II. The B-25 bomber was on a routine mission, ferrying servicemen to LaGuardia Airport, when it found itself flying among the skyscrapers of midtown Manhattan. Producers Joe Richman and Samara Freemark of Radio Diaries bring us this audio history.

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

Ms. GLORIA PALL: My name is Gloria Pall. 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, it was excitement. It was the Empire State Building, the tallest building in the world at that time.

(Soundbite of newsreel)

Unidentified Man #1: 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 1,200 feet below.

Ms. WILLIG: Everyone on the ground looked so small - the cars, the people. You were really part of the clouds.

(Soundbite of newsreel)

Unidentified Man #1: The Empire State Building, a giant of steel and stone, a mark of 20th century progress.

Mr. ARTHUR WEINGARTEN (Author): 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 Captain William Franklin Smith, a highly decorated pilot.

Early in the morning on July 28th, 1945, Captain Smith left from Massachusetts to the New York area.

Ms. WILLIG: That morning was a misty, cloudy day at the Empire State Building. We couldn't really see the ground from the 79th floor.

Ms. PALL: And it was so foggy outside. I was looking out at the window, there was nothing to see. It was just like pea soup. It was like a London fog.

Unidentified Man #2: It was very foggy in New York this morning when an Army B-25 twin-engine bomber passed over LaGuardia Field and asked for a weather report…

Mr. WEINGARTEN: When Captain 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.

Unidentified Man #3: 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.

Mr. 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.

Unidentified Man #4: On a foggy Saturday morning, five blocks north of the Empire State Building, James E. Ager(ph) was dictating into his sound-scriber machine a letter to Dean Crawford(ph) of the University of Michigan.

(Soundbite of tape)

Mr. JAMES E. AGER: This letter is for Dean Crawford of the University of Michigan…

Unidentified Man #4: And he was interrupted by the sound of a plane roaring down Fifth Avenue at less than 1,000 feet.

Mr. WEINGARTEN: And you can hear him on the tape dictating the letter and the sound of the engines gets 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.

(Soundbite of tape)

Ms. WILLIG: At about five minutes of 10:00, I got up from my desk, and that was the end of the office as it existed.

Unidentified Man #5: We are delaying the start of our regularly scheduled program to bring you a special news report on the crash of an airplane into the Empire State Building. Columbia stations…

Ms. PALL: 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 it was a bomb or what happened.

Unidentified Man #5: 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. As what the final toll will be, there is no way of telling at this time. The Army…

Ms. WILLIG: 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 and he was on fire. His clothes were on fire. His head was on fire. Six 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.

Unidentified Man #5: The four-alarm fire has drawn every piece of fire apparatus to the busy scene of Fifth 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.

Ms. WILLIG: It was a very small universe at that point. You're sort of stuck there, in 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.

Unidentified Man #6: We have contacted an eyewitness, Mr. Gil Kirby(ph) of the Grant(ph) Advertising Agency. We contacted him by telephone. Mr. Kirby?

Mr. GIL KIRBY (Witness): I looked out of the window, and it was very, very smoky, terribly smoky. And 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 in the 76th. It's two flights up.

Ms. WILLIG: A man appeared, you know, a few stories down. He looked up and he signaled up to us. And I think Charlotte was sitting, you know, 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.

Mr. KIRBY: Then one girl got out of the window and I said, get back, get back, get back. I said, the firemen will be here soon now. So she said, well, come quickly because our whole office is in flames. We can't wait long. And I said, all right, you get back now, be a good girl and get back.

Ms. WILLIG: 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. Then we all felt a little better to know that someone knew we were there.

Unidentified Man #7: 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.

Mr. 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, 19-year-old elevator operator named Betty Lou Oliver. She started to plunge down the elevator shaft from the 79th floor.

Unidentified Man #8: Cables of two of the cars were sheared, sending both elevators crashing to the sub-basements of the Empire State Building.

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

Unidentified Man #9: Now, Reverend John J. Morrison(ph) has just come in and he has 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 or 66th floor. It's down below us anyway.

Unidentified Man #10: Yes. I see.

Ms. SHARON DEARING SUZASKIS(ph): My name is Sharon Dearing Suzaskis. My father was Paul Dearing(ph). My father was in a corner office on the 79th floor. He either was forced out by the crash in 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 is - that's what I think of.

Unidentified Man #10: 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.

Ms. WILLIG: All of a sudden, here were firemen, and they're coming to rescue us, you know, all dressed up in their rain coats and whatever they wear. You know, and it was just wonderful. We climbed out through the broken glass. I was just grateful to be alive.

Unidentified Man #10: The walls are still hot, the brick and stone walls that we have our hand on as we talk are still hot with the flame that has been out for over an hour now.

Ms. PALL: A hundred and 12 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, and I said, well, what happened? What happened? What happened? And he pointed up to the 79th floor, and I saw the tail of a B-25 sticking out.

Mr. DON GODDARD (Former Radio Newscaster, NBC): Well, we're going to get off the air here very shortly, because we have the story told now, the B-25, two-engined Army bomber crashing into the Empire State Building just a few minutes before 10 o'clock. We have been…

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

Mr. GODDARD: Well, this is Don Goddard, and this is the National Broadcasting Company.

Unidentified Man #11: We'll return you now to the music of the First Piano Quartet.

(Soundbite of music)

BLOCK: Eight months after the crash, the U.S. government offered money to families of the victims. Some accepted, but others initiated a lawsuit that resulted in landmark legislation. The Federal Tort Claims Act of 1946, for the first time, gave American citizens the right to sue the federal government.

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