During the 1920s, New York’s economy boomed like never before. There was a mad dash by builders to erect the world’s largest skyscraper. Although there were many competitors, the main rivalry was between 40 Wall Street’s Bank of Manhattan building and the Chrysler Building, an elaborate Art Deco structure conceived by car mogul Walter Chrysler who said it was “a monument to me.”
Both towers added more floors to their design in an attempt to best each other, and the race really heated up in August of 1929, when John J. Raskob, the General Motors executive, and Al Smith, former New York Governor, announced plans for the Empire State Building.
After this announcement and with the knowledge that the Empire State Building would be 1,000, Chrysler changed his plans one final time and fixed a stainless steel spire to the top of his skyscraper. The addition meant that the Chrysler Building would stand at a record 1,048 feet.
Unfortunately, Raskob and Smith neatly beat Chrysler at his own game and created a taller design for the Empire State Building. As already mentioned, the completed building loomed 1,250 feet over the streets of Manhattan. It would hold the record for the world’s tallest building for nearly 40 years, until the completion of the first World Trade Center in 1970.
William Franklin Smith, Jr., was serving as the pilot of a B-25 Mitchell bomber on the morning of July 28, 1945. It was a routine personnel transport mission which involved him flying from Bedford Army Air Field to Newark Airport.
When he asked for landing clearance, he was told visibility was zero. He continued through the dense fog and become disoriented. Instead of turning left after he passed the Chrysler Building, he turned right.
The plane then crashed into the Empire State Building’s north side at 9:40 a.m. just between the 78th and 80th floors. The result was an 18-foot by 20-foot hole in the building. It hit where National Catholic Welfare Council had located its offices.
One of the plane’s engines shot through the south side of the building, which was opposite from the impact. It reportedly flew as far as a block before dropping 900 feet and landing on the roof of a building, resulting in a fire that destroyed a penthouse art studio.
The plane’s second engine, along with its landing gear, plummeted down an elevator shaft causing a fire that took 40 minutes to extinguish. It remains the only fire at such a height to be brought under control. There were 14 people killed, including the pilot.
Christopher Domitrovich and Albert Perna, a Navy aviation machinist’s friend, were all on board the plane plus 11 people who were in the building when the plane struck it. Smith’s body wasn’t recovered until two days later when search crews found that the pilot’s body had gone through an elevator shaft and then fallen to the bottom.
Betty Lou Oliver, the elevator operator, was injured. Rescuers chose to transport her on another elevator that they didn’t know had cables that were weakened.
The cables broke, and she survived a fall of 75 stories, which still stands as the longest survived elevator fall in the Guinness Book of World Records.
Although there was extensive damage and loss of life, the building had many floors reopened for business the following Monday. The missing stone located in the façade serves as evidence of where the aircraft crashed into the side of the building.