Disasters · New York

Plane crashes into Empire State Building; woman falls down elevator shaft — twice — and survives

July 28, 1945
Manhattan, New York
A B-25 bomber crashes into the Empire State Building, killing all 3 crew members of the plane and 11 others in the building

The airplane had been on a routine transport mission when a thick fog impaired the pilot’s visibility causing the plane to hit the Empire State Building’s 79th floor. The body of Lt. Col. William F. Smith, the pilot, was not recovered for two days as it had fallen down an elevator shaft.

While the plane struck the 79th floor, Betty Lou Oliver, a 20-year-old elevator operator, was in her elevator car leaving the 80th floor when “[t]he elevator seemed to stop and shutter for a moment. Then it began plummeting downward. I tried desperately to stop it. Then a flash of fire enveloped me and I raised my left arm to protect my face.” She received severe burns as well as a broken pelvis, neck, and back.

First-aid workers put her into another elevator to bring her to the ground floor to treat her injuries. As she was descending, the cables to this elevator snapped sending her plummeting 75 stories to the basement. A large elevator cable measuring around 1000 feet had coiled at the bottom of the shaft providing cushion, and the rapid compression of air within the shaft likely also helped deceleration of the elevator car and Betty Lou survived this second accident as well. She passed away in 1999.

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