Unsung Coast Guard Rescue: The Empire State Building Crash
[By Petty Officer 1st Class William Bleye]
Few people today know that on July 28, 1945, a large aircraft crashed into the Empire State Building. Fewer still know that the accident produced the world record for surviving an elevator fall, and that the fall’s victim was rescued by a coastguardsman.
Saturday, July 28, was an extremely foggy day in New York City. A B-25 bomber was on a routine transit flight from Massachusetts to Newark Airport in New Jersey. The pilot of the twin-engine medium bomber was Army Air Forces Lt. Col. William Smith. On board was his flight mechanic, Staff Sgt. Christopher Domitrovich, a European Theater combat veteran who had previously survived having his plane shot down and had been stranded behind enemy lines. Their only passenger was Navy Petty Officer Albert Perna, who was heading home on emergency leave because his brother had just been reported killed in action. The thick fog was giving Smith problems navigating his aircraft as he approached New York City.
A few thousand feet below, Coast Guard Hospitalman Donald Molony was gazing up at the Empire State Building. He was 17 years old and from Flint, Michigan. For the past eight months, he had been receiving medical training in Groton, Connecticut, to become a Pharmacist Mate (equivalent to today’s Coast Guard Health Service Technician or Navy Hospital Corpsman). It was his last chance to visit New York City before he graduated. He had been hoping to take in the view from the top of the world’s tallest building, but the fog had frustrated his plans, and he was considering just seeing a movie.
Smith, the pilot, was far from inexperienced. The 27-year-old West Point graduate had recently returned to the states after two years of flying combat missions over Europe as a B-17 bomber pilot. Tall and handsome with a pencil thin mustache, he looked the part of a highly decorated squadron commander. Unfortunately, he was overconfident about this routine, albeit foggy, stateside transit flight. Faced with the deteriorating weather, he considered landing at La Guardia airport outside the city, which would dangerously disrupt their traffic pattern, but decided to keep pressing through the severely restricted visibility towards his original destination of Newark Airport. Disoriented but believing he was over Jersey City he flew lower and lower, sending his aircraft barreling through downtown Manhattan. He barely missed several buildings and eventually flew so low that people in offices saw his plane fly by beneath them.
Meanwhile, inside the Empire State Building, it was supposed to be Betty Lou Oliver’s last day on the job as an elevator operator. She was a 20-year-old, blue-eyed brunette and originally from Arkansas. After her final shift ended, she was planning to take a train to Norfolk to reunite with her husband, a Navy sailor who had just returned from serving on a destroyer in the Pacific. As she moved her elevator upwards to answer a call, she was singing aloud to herself.
The sortie of Smith’s B-25 ended abruptly at 9:55 a.m. when it crashed into the 79th floor of the Empire State Building (left). The impact created a huge fireball, tore a 20-by-20-foot hole in the structure and killed the flight crew instantly. Eleven people working in the building were killed or fatally wounded, and 26 others were seriously injured, with most of the casualties being employees of a war relief charity. Debris rained down around the surrounding area as New York City’s fire and police department and local military units scrambled to respond. The fireball burned off the surrounding fog, exposing the damage to witnesses; many people believed the city was being bombed by the Japanese.
Still standing on the street below and hoping for a break in the weather, Molony heard the B-25 careen overhead and explode as it hit. He immediately ran into the building, narrowly missing being hit by falling debris. There was a drug store on the ground floor and he burst in demanding, “Give me a first aid kit, the largest and most complete one you’ve got! I need lots of bandages, burn ointment and alcohol!” When the clerk turned around to grab the supplies, Molony ran around the counter, opened the controlled substances safe and grabbed several vials of morphine. As he ran back out into the lobby, he heard an eerie sound.
The sound was of an elevator flying downward while its female operator screamed. Oliver had been operating her elevator at the same floor as the impact. One of the B-25’s engines bounced off an adjacent car, severed the cables above her car, and then dropped down the shaft to smash into its roof, sending the car plummeting straight down with her in it. She pressed the emergency button, but it didn’t do any good.
Fortunately, compressing air in the tight elevator shaft, along with the cables below coiling like shock-absorbing springs, somewhat slowed her car’s descent. However, it still fell fast enough that she was weightless for most of the fall and the crash embedded the car four to five feet into the building’s concrete foundation. Having survived being hit by a medium bomber and falling 1,000 feet in an elevator, Oliver was now trapped in the building’s lowest basement.
Molony heard and felt the elevator crash and was trying to figure out how to get into the basement when the first firefighters arrived. Their chief was happy to see him; he knew that as a corpsman, Molony had more medical training than any fire department personnel. They made their way below to find that Oliver’s elevator had hit like a bomb; there was smoke, fire and debris everywhere. The firemen sprayed water on the fires and they worked their way to the shattered elevator car.
Upon reaching the car, they saw that there was a small hole in the crumpled top, too small for an outfitted New York City fireman. Molony, much thinner in his Navy-style “crackerjack” liberty uniform, was able to squeeze through. The inside of the car was utterly demolished and he doubted that anyone could have possibly survived, but one of the firemen heard a moan. While the firemen sprayed water around him, he dug through heavy debris until he uncovered Oliver. She had two broken legs, severe burns and spinal injuries but was still semiconscious. An unconfirmed source says that she looked at Molony and said, “Thank God, the Navy’s here.” His response was not recorded.
Oliver did tell Molony that she was drowning in the firefighting water. He yelled at the firemen to secure it, bandaged her injuries, gave her morphine and strapped her to a backboard. They pulled her out of the wreckage, and Molony used a lipstick from her purse to put an “M” – for morphine – on her forehead while they carried her upstairs.
Molony left Oliver with a priest and a rabbi in the lobby and joined the first group of firemen heading upwards towards the impact zone. At first they took the stairs two at a time, but eventually, the firemen, weighed down by their gear and equipment, slowed, and Molony continued up alone. Once he arrived at the crash site, he began searching room by room for victims. Working around debris, fires, and puddles of unignited aviation fuel, he found, treated and escorted several more victims to safety.
Thanks to wartime emergency planning, the response to the disaster was well-coordinated and effective. The Empire State Building was and is exceptionally fire-resistant, and 40 minutes after the crash, the fire department had the fire under control; it remains the only time a fire located that high in a building has ever been successfully extinguished. Total damages were estimated at $1 million (roughly $13 million today), of which the Army eventually paid slightly over half. The service also overhauled training for aviators returning from overseas.
Molony’s response to seeing a large aircraft hit the world’s tallest building was to run directly towards it. He rescued the person who survived the world’s longest elevator fall. New York City Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia gave him a citation for his actions; he is credited with saving the lives of “at least a dozen people.” He also received the Navy Commendation Ribbon, which later evolved into the modern Commendation Medal.
Molony left the Coast Guard after World War II and joined the Navy during the Korean War, where his courage and abilities were demonstrated again. He was wounded eight times serving alongside the Marines as a combat medic. He died in 2002.
This article appears courtesy of Coast Guard Compass and may be found in its original form here.
The opinions expressed herein are the author's and not necessarily those of The Maritime Executive.