If you ever think you’ve had a bad day at work, spare a thought for poor Betty Lou Oliver was almost killed twice in quick succession. First, a plane crashed into the Empire State Building where she worked and then, the elevator she was on plunged 75 stories and for a moment, Betty must have thought she was falling into eternal darkness. Instead, she survived both incidents, with severe injuries, and lived another 54 years.
The Empire State Building B-25 Crash, 1945
On July 28, 1945, Betty arrived at the Empire State Building where she worked as an elevator attendant. It was all set up to be just another ordinary day at work for the 20-year old. Little did she realize that the foggy conditions outside would turn her world upside down. It was in the final months of World War II, and a B-25 service bomber was embarking on a basic mission which involved bringing servicemen from Massachusetts to LaGuardia Airport in New York City.
The pilot was the vastly experienced Captain William Smith who had led some of the war’s most dangerous missions. By the time Smith had arrived in New York, the fog had significantly reduced visibility. Smith contacted LaGuardia and requested permission to land. He was advised not to land and according to the writer of The Sky Is Falling (a book about the events of that fateful day), Arthur Weingarten, Smith ignored the order and made a turn that brought him over midtown Manhattan.
It appears as if Smith became disorientated by the fog and rather than turning left after the Chrysler Building like he should have, Smith, turned right and was now directly among the city’s skyscrapers. At the time, the Empire State Building was the tallest in the world, and Smith crashed between the 78th and 80th floors. Smith, the two crew members on board, and 11 people in the building died. Search crews did not find Smith’s body for two days as it went through an elevator shaft and was at the bottom.
Inside, there was chaos as shocked employees tried to flee as soon as possible. According to Therese Fortier Willig, who worked on the 79th floor, she could see nothing but flames. She described the horrific spectacle of seeing a man named Mr. Fountain catch fire. The impact of the crash was felt throughout the building. On the 56th floor, Gloria Pall said it felt as if the building was about to topple over. Despite being over 20 floors from the impact, it was strong enough to throw her across the room.
When the plane crashed, parts of the engine flew into the building and weakened the cables of a pair of elevators on the 79th floor. This action ensured that Betty had a day she would never forget as she cheated death twice in the space of minutes.