July 28, 2008

It's Like 9/11 Again, Only In The Forties

Picture this: You work in the tallest building in New York City, one of the tallest buildings in the world. You go in to work, and everything's great for about an hour, an hour and a half, depending on when you get in. Then, out of nowhere, an airplane hits the building, about three-quarters of the way to the top. The noise is like nothing you've ever heard before. The whole building shakes and sways back and forth. There is fire and smoke everywhere. You are trapped above the flames and can't get out.

If that sounds familiar, it should. It happened on this day, sixty-three years ago, at the Empire State Building.

The B-25 Mitchell bomber that struck the world's tallest building was being flown by a veteran pilot, one who was perhaps a little bit too cocky about flying in heavy fog after a lot of landing in brutal conditions in Europe. The mission was to ferry a number of servicemen into New York for processing and rotation into the war, which was in its waning days. The pilot had been warned off of an attempted landing at LaGuardia Airport by civilian air traffic control on his approach from Boston, but proceeded anyway. As a military pilot in wartime, he had priority over the civilian ATC's. But he apparently made his turn a little bit late and somehow wound up flying southwest down a heavily-fogged Fifth Avenue, below the tops of the skyscrapers.

He could only hold it together for a few seconds before crossing 39th Street and hitting the 79th floor of the Empire State, which at the time was occupied by the War Relief Service office of the National Catholic Welfare League. Good people, trying to do what they could to make life better for people during the war.

It's hard to say what exactly made the plane go off course or why he didn't simply pull the nose up and seek safety above the city -- he may not have had enough time to think it through. But when the plane hit, it ripped a twenty-foot wide hole in the building. The fuel did not catch fire until about half of the plane had penetrated the outer shell of the tower, and then it sprayed out over five floors and down a staircase, spreading flame everywhere.

One of the airplane's engines went in along with the fuselage. It disconnected from the wing and flew ahead on its own momentum, severing an elevator cable and dropping a car, with an elevator operator in it, down into the sub-basement. The operator survived, but was found with nearly every bone in her body broken. The engine lost momentum in another elevator shaft and it, too, fell to the sub-basement. The other engine separated from the plane from the force of the impact but flew onto the roof of a twelve-story building further down Fifth Avenue.

The number of people involved was higher than one would expect on a Saturday, because the war effort had caused most people to move to six-day work weeks. Fourteen people died (eleven workers in the building and three of the passengers on the plane) and a lot were badly hurt. Twelve of them were killed in the crash and the resulting fire; one of them was recovered from a palisade on the 64th floor; it is not clear whether he jumped or fell after dying; the last died of smoke inhalation injuries three days after the crash. The rescue operation took hours and nearly every emergency vehicle and responder in New York City.

The structural integrity of the building was not compromised, and it still stands proudly on the corner of Fifth and Thirty-Ninth.

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