On a foggy Saturday morning, 78 years ago today, on July 28th, 1945, an event occurred in New York City that would be etched in its history forever. In an unfortunate turn of events, a B-25 Mitchell bomber, on a routine transport mission, deviated from its intended flight path and crashed into the iconic Empire State Building. This catastrophic incident, while it claimed a relatively small number of lives, deeply shocked the city and the world.
At the time, the Empire State Building was the tallest structure in the world, standing at a majestic 1,454 feet, including its antenna. It represented the epitome of human architectural achievement. The crash that morning, tragically punctured that symbol of invincibility, as flames billowed from the 79th floor, and wreckage rained down onto the streets below.
In today’s blog, we will take a deep dive into this extraordinary event, unraveling the circumstances that led to the crash, the immediate impact, and its long-term implications. With a greater understanding of the past, we can better appreciate the present, and prepare for the future.
Why Did a Plane Crash Into the Empire State Building?
On that fateful morning, Lieutenant Colonel William Franklin Smith Jr. was piloting the B-25 bomber from Bedford Army Air Field in Massachusetts to Newark Airport in New Jersey. His passengers were Navy aviation machinist Albert Perna and another, unidentified person. The weather that day was a thick fog, typical of the New York summer, reducing visibility significantly. Despite warnings about the poor weather conditions, Smith decided to proceed, confident in his flying skills.
Smith’s intent was to land the plane at Newark Airport for refueling before it continued its journey to its home base in Sioux Falls, South Dakota. Unfortunately, while flying low to maintain visibility in the fog, he ended up in Manhattan instead of New Jersey. Realizing his error, he attempted to turn the plane around, but the Empire State Building loomed ahead, invisible in the dense fog.
At 9:40 AM, the bomber crashed into the north side of the Empire State Building, hitting between the 78th and 80th floors. The speed of the impact was such that the plane’s high-octane fuel exploded, causing a massive fireball that engulfed several floors. The wreckage and debris from the crash fell onto the streets below, causing additional havoc and damage.
The crash of the B-25 bomber into the Empire State Building was a combination of unfortunate circumstances and human error. The poor visibility due to foggy weather and a navigational mistake were the primary contributors to this tragedy.
How Many People Died in the Empire State Building Plane Crash?
The tragic accident claimed the lives of 14 people, a devastating loss, though small relative to the scale of the event. The three occupants of the plane—Lt. Col. Smith, Albert Perna, and an unidentified passenger—died upon impact. The other casualties were not the occupants of the plane but the people in the building and on the streets below.
Within the building, 11 people perished, most of them working for the War Relief Services department of the National Catholic Welfare Conference, located on the 79th floor. These individuals were either trapped by the fire or struck by debris from the aircraft.
The number of casualties could have been much higher, considering the size of the aircraft and the iconic status of the Empire State Building. However, since the incident occurred on a weekend, many offices in the building were not fully staffed, which significantly reduced the potential loss of life.
How Did the Empire State Building Survive the Plane Crash?
The fact that the Empire State Building not only survived the crash but also remained open for business two days later is a testament to its architectural and engineering marvel. It was designed to withstand forces far greater than the crash of a B-25 bomber.
Structurally, the building was made to resist strong wind forces and even an earthquake. Its design is based on a steel frame, created with 57,000 tons of steel, that carries both the vertical and horizontal loads, making it incredibly robust.
Further, the impact of the plane was absorbed by the exterior columns, preventing the force from being transmitted to the interior structure. Additionally, the speed of the plane at the time of the crash was relatively low, and the B-25 bomber was significantly smaller and lighter than contemporary passenger aircraft.
The Empire State Building’s fireproofing also played a crucial role in its survival. Although the crash ignited a fire that lasted for three hours, the fire-resistant asbestos-clad steel structure successfully contained it.
The aftermath of the Empire State Building plane crash saw a swift and efficient recovery operation. By Monday, just two days after the crash, businesses within the building were back in operation, albeit with boarded-up windows and a temporary elevator service to replace the ones destroyed in the crash.
The repair work, costing about $1 million (approximately $13.5 million today, adjusted for inflation), was completed within just three months. This included replacing over 5,000 square feet of stone, 200 windows, and numerous elevator cables, as well as other extensive repairs and cleaning.
The incident had a profound impact on aviation regulations. Before the crash, there were few restrictions on flying over urban areas. In the wake of the accident, the Civil Aeronautics Board recommended stricter regulations for flights in low visibility and rules that would prohibit flying over populated areas unless absolutely necessary.
Before the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, the Empire State Building plane crash was indeed the most severe in New York City’s history. Though a tragedy, it taught many valuable lessons in aviation safety and urban planning. These lessons were, unfortunately, highlighted further by the events of 9/11.