On July 28, 1945, the bustling streets of New York City were abruptly silenced as a North American B-25 Mitchell bomber, on a personnel transport mission from Massachusetts to New Jersey, tragically collided with the Empire State Building.
This catastrophic event, which claimed the lives of 14 individuals, remains etched in the memories of those who experienced it, even as its significance has faded from public consciousness.
Despite the height of summer, it was surprisingly damp and foggy in New York on the morning of July 28th. Nevertheless, despite the inclement weather, numerous people were bustling along 5th Avenue.
Generally, on a workday, around 15,000 would be working in or visiting the Empire State Building, but on the morning of the 28th, only 1,500 people were in the building.
Lieutenant Colonel William Franklin Smith Jr., the pilot, had requested clearance to land at Newark Metropolitan Airport, but the dense fog obscured his vision.
At precisely 9:40 a.m., the aircraft plowed into the north side of the Empire State Building, creating a gaping 18-by-20-foot hole between the 78th and 80th floors.
This devastating impact tore through the offices of the War Relief Services and the National Catholic Welfare Council. One of the engines rocketed through the south side, traversed an entire city block, plummeted a staggering 900 feet, and ultimately landed on the roof of a neighboring building, igniting a fire that consumed a penthouse art studio. Simultaneously, the other engine and a section of the landing gear plummeted down an elevator shaft.
Miraculously, firefighters managed to quell the ensuing blaze within a mere 40 minutes. This heroic effort marked the Empire State Building fire as the most elevated structural fire successfully contained by firefighters in history. Empire State Building sustained no critical structural damage.
The impact claimed the lives of Fourteen people: Colonel Smith, Staff Sergeant Christopher Domitrovich, and Navy Aviation Machinist’s Mate Albert Perna, who was hitching a ride, and eleven civilians in the building. Approximately twenty to twenty-four others were injured as a result of the crash.
Despite the damage and deaths, the building was open for business on many floors on the next Monday morning, less than 48 hours later.
In the aftermath, the city grappled with the devastation, and eight months later, the U.S. government extended compensation to the victims’ families.
Some accepted, while others pursued a landmark lawsuit that led to the Federal Tort Claims Act of 1946, granting American citizens the unprecedented right to sue the federal government.
This tragic incident, occurring in the waning days of World War II, serves as a poignant reminder of a forgotten chapter in New York’s history, overshadowed by subsequent tragedies of greater magnitude.
Yet, for those who lived through it, the memory endures, a testament to the resilience of a city that has faced adversity with unwavering strength.
The North American B-25 Mitchell was an American medium bomber named after Brigadier General William “Billy” Mitchell. Safe and relatively easy to fly, the B-25 entered service with the United States Army Air Force in 1941 and was used in every theater during World War Two.