Sunday, September 22, 2019

When a Plane Crashed the Empire State Building into Office of Forerunner to USCCB

On a hazy morning on Saturday, July 28, 1945, a B25 bomber lost in the fog, crashed into the Empire State Building at the 79th floor, killing 14 people. It went right into the National Catholic Welfare Conference office which years later would become the United States Catholic  Conference of Bishops, (USCCB). 
During the rescue mission, the lines of one of the elevator cables snapped causing a young women elevator operator to fall down 75 flights. She survived.  

Wow! Wow! Wow! I only recently learned about this, which is not wildly unusual for me not to know something in history, but my husband who knows a lot of history was equally surprised.  I’m sharing it here because perhaps you have never heard about this dramatic story either.
Lieutenant Colonel William Franklin Smith Jr. was on a routine transport mission from Bedford Army Airfield in Massachusetts to LaGuardia Airport in New York City.  He was a decorated veteran of 34 bombing missions in Europe and was waiting his next deployment to the Pacific. World War II was over in Europe four months earlier, on May 7, but the war against Japan would not be over until August 14.
Just before 9:40 AM,  traveling about 200 miles an hour, Smith became lost in heavy fog. He was instructed to land at Newark Airport instead. A turn he made to avoid the Chrysler Building resulted with him crashing into the Empire State Building on the north side between the 78th and 80th floors. Civil air regulations at the time required an altitude of 2,000 feet over Manhattan, but Smith's plane struck the building's north side only 913 feet above 34th Street, putting an 18‐by‐20‐foot hole in the building.
The fuel exploded into flames. The wings were sheared off and the plane broke apart with pieces landing on the street and other structures including one engine and part of the landing gear hurtled down an elevator shaft into a basement, and the other engine tore across the 78th floor, through a wall, and down to the roof of a department store building.
Rescue workers rushed to the scene. Betty Lou Oliver, a 20-year-old elevator operator who had been working on the 80th floor, was burned by the blast. As rescue workers loaded her into an elevator for transport, the cables snapped sending her into a 75-floor free fall to the  basement.  She miraculously survived with only a broken pelvis, back, and neck.  Her Guinness World Record fall was cushioned by broken cables, which piled in a spring-like spiral on the floor of the shaft. Also, possibly the narrow elevator shaft acted as a compressor for air and softened the blow.
Oliver had been treated at Bellevue Hospital for 18 weeks and then rejoined her husband, who had been in the Navy at the time. They later had three children and Oliver went to work as the manager of a department store’s automotive department. 
I wish I could have found more about Oliver’s experience in her own words but although she was a heroine in the news, she later shunned media attention. I imagine there must have been a certain amount of post-traumatic stress,  and I imagine she was praying for God’s help on the way down.
The plane embedded in the side of the building, 1945
Since it was a Saturday, there were many less people than usual at work so only 11 people in the building were killed from burns or being thrown from the building. (The 3 on the plane also died.) All 11 victims worked in the offices of the War Relief Services department of the National Catholic Welfare Conference, where the plane had crashed into. The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops took its present form in 2001 from the consolidation of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops and the United States Catholic Conference which developed from its origins of the National Catholic War Council founded in 1917 to bring relief—spiritual and recreational—to soldiers. 

To read more about this event: 
Ghere for some dramatic photos including one of Betty Lou Oliver, the elevator operator, photographed after her release from the hospital, in front of the elevator. 
See actual news film from British Movietone  here.
For more inspiration check out Patti's latest bookHoly Hacks: Everyday Ways to Live Your Faith & Get to HeavenOther books include:  Big Hearted: Inspiring Stories from Everyday Families and the best-selling Amazing Grace Series.
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