This Woman Cheated Death Twice on the Same Day After a 1945 Disaster
This Woman Cheated Death Twice on the Same Day After a 1945 Disaster

This Woman Cheated Death Twice on the Same Day After a 1945 Disaster

Patrick Lynch - October 11, 2017


This Woman Cheated Death Twice on the Same Day After a 1945 Disaster
A view from above, also an indication of how far Betty fell when in the elevator. Cladrite Radio

An Unlucky Break

At the moment that Captain Smith crashed the plane into the Empire State Building, Betty Lou Oliver was working on the 80th floor as an elevator attendant. The crash caused her to be thrown out of her vehicle, and as well as suffering from severe burns, Betty had a broken pelvis, back, and neck. They were terrible injuries, but it was clear that Betty would survive as first aid workers helped her and placed her on an elevator to the ground floor. Soon, she would be driven to the hospital for proper treatment.

Meanwhile, Willig was still in shock over what happened on the 79th floor. In the immediate aftermath of the crash, she was certain it was all over for everyone on the floor. Speaking years later, Willig described it as a ‘small universe’ as it was akin to being stuck on a small island surrounded by fire. While someone had managed to open a window and Willig used a handkerchief to protect her from the smoke, several women passed out from the fumes.

At some point, a man named Paul Dearing jumped as he panicked in the aftermath of the fire. Willig was so sure that her time on Earth was over that she took the rings off her fingers and threw them out of the window. Fortunately, her fears were groundless because firemen arrived on the scene and rescued all the survivors. Pall later admitted that she had no idea what happened 23 floors up until she was out of the building and saw the tail of a B-25 bomber sticking out of the building. It appeared as if the worst was over and it was; except for Betty Lou Oliver.

A Sudden Crash

The rescuers had placed Betty on a stretcher and put her in an elevator on the 79th floor. Unfortunately, they didn’t know that the cables on the elevator had been weakened in the crash. As soon as they placed Betty on the elevator, the cables snapped, and Betty started to hurtle down towards the bottom of the elevator shaft. Her entire life must surely have passed before her eyes as the elevator rocketed towards the ground.

In a few seconds, she would be dead at just 20 years of age; with no opportunity to achieve any of her goals in life nor would she see her husband again. Remarkably, Betty survived her second ordeal of the day with an extraordinary amount of luck by all accounts. The elevator plunged a total of 75 stories, approximately 1,000 feet, so in reality, Betty shouldn’t have survived.

As it transpired, the thousand feet of elevator cable had broken away and fallen to the bottom of the shaft before Betty landed. By the time she landed, the cable was there to provide a softer landing surface. The rapid compression of air also added to the cushion. Although there are more fun ways to end up in the Guinness Book of Records, Betty’s name was added for the unlikely feat of longest survived elevator fall; a record she still holds today. It was an incredible escape but what became of Betty Lou Oliver?


This Woman Cheated Death Twice on the Same Day After a 1945 Disaster
Betty Lou Oliver recovering from the accident – World War Wings

The Aftermath

Betty suffered further serious injuries from her fall and was eventually cut from the mangled wreckage. It took her eight months to recover fully and just to make matters worse, July 28 was supposed to be her last day on the job. The story truly is like something from a clichéd Hollywood script. Just five months later while still recovering, Betty returned to the scene with an elevator inspector who was astonished at her ‘guts’ for agreeing to travel in an elevator after her ordeal.

As well as claiming the lives of 14 people, the Empire State Building crash caused one million dollars worth of damage ($13 million today) including the destruction of a nearby penthouse art studio. The carnage would have been much worse had the firemen not reacted so quickly. Incredibly, they extinguished the fire in just 40 minutes. It is still the biggest major fire to have ever been brought under control at such a height. Although the crash shocked the nation, the bombing of Hiroshima a week later garnered most of the media’s spotlight.

Despite the crash and subsequent fire, which happened on Saturday, the building was open for business on numerous floors on Monday; mainly because the Empire State Building did not suffer any structural damage. Eight months later, the U.S. Government offered money to the families of the victims. While some accepted it and moved on, the others filed a lawsuit that ultimately led to the implementation of the Federal Tort Claims Act of 1946.

Betty Lou’s Life

Betty was married at the time of the accident, and once she recovered eight months later, she returned to Fort Smith in Arizona to live with her husband, Oscar Lee. Despite suffering horrific injuries, we’re not aware if it had any long-term physical or psychological injuries because Betty stayed off the radar completely once she went back to Arizona.

What we know is that she had three children with Oscar Lee and a total of seven grandchildren. Her husband died in 1986, and according to her obituary, Betty died in Fort Smith, Arizona on November 24, 1999. She was 74 years of age.

The events of the Empire State Building crash helped inspire the beginning of Halle Ephron’s novel; There Was an Old Woman. While the book is entirely fictional, Ephron does mention the crash. The book’s heroine, Evie Ferrante, lived in Manhattan in 1945 and at the beginning of the book; she is working in the sub-sub-basement of the Empire State Building trying to retrieve the engine of a B-25 bomber that slammed into a skyscraper.