Lost In History Vol. 4 

High-Rise Apartments and Low-Flying Planes

In the thickness of the afternoon fog, none of the pedestrians on the ground could tell exactly what had happened. One moment there was a low-flying plane overhead, the next, it was lost in the cloud bank and swallowed whole into the side of the midtown skyscraper, in a small yet terrible explosion. Upon impact, the plane's fuel ignited, and the resulting fires tore through the world’s most famous office building. The plane’s pilot plus two other passengers weren’t killed so much as vaporized in the crash, and eleven additional people were killed in the aftermath. However, the damage, on the north face of the building between the 78th and 79th floors, was extraordinarily contained; the fires were put out in 40 minutes and the building was open again for business by Monday, still with an 18-by-20 foot hole in its side but essentially under control.

The more recent airplane crash on Manhattan’s Upper East Side this past Wednesday was, for all accounts and purposes, a tragedy. Cory Lidle, the recently acquired Yankees pitcher, and his flight instructor Tyler Stanger, 34 and 26 respectively, had apparently miscalculated their flight position over the East River and slammed into the Belaire Apartments building on East 72nd Street and York Avenue. Lidle only had 75 hours of flying logged in his flight book, but had been a confident and fearless flier, telling reporters, “I'm not worried about it. I'm safe up there. I feel very comfortable with my abilities flying an airplane." Investigations are pending to determine if there was a mechanical failure on the 2002 Cirrus SR20 aircraft, such as an airplane stall in which the plane simply wasn’t catching enough air to stay aloft. But more news reports are focusing on the 180 degree box-canyon turn that Lidle or Stanger was forced to make in order to avoid flying into La Guardia airspace, which, in turn, flew them straight into the 39th through 41st floors of the building, comprised of 2- and 3- bedroom apartments that sell for 1-3 million dollars. But with only two fatalities in this crash, this is no comparison to the large-scale calamity of July 28th, 1945 at the Empire State Building.

Lieutenant William F. Smith, a decorated veteran of 100 combat missions throughout World War II, was flying a B25 bomber from his home in Bedford, Massachusetts to Newark to pick up his Commanding Officer and head to home base in South Dakota. The war was almost over – Germany had surrendered on May 8th, but the bombs had not yet been dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The 28th of July was hot and muggy, and Smith’s flight plan had called for him to land at La Guardia. However, Smith’s confidence had gotten the best of him and he intended to pull on through to Newark. The last thing the radio controller told Smith was “At the present time, I can’t see the top of the Empire State Building.” The crash occurred on a Saturday, at 9:40 in the morning. The 79th floor was occupied by the Catholic Relief Workers association, and eight members of the office were killed when the plane sheared into the building at 200 miles per hour. Fourteen people died and the building was repaired within the week.

Truly the most incredible aspect of this history is the story of Betty Lou Oliver, elevator operator on the 80th floor. The force of the blast threw her from her post, and she suffered severe burns and injuries. After being given first aid, she boarded elevator car #6 in order to get to the ambulance waiting for her on the street. At about the 75th floor, the cables supporting the car, badly damaged by the B25’s wingspan (which, upon entering the building, sliced through the governor and safety cables on cars #6 and 7), snapped, sending the car into a total freefall, over 1000 feet to the sub-basement. The air pressure force from this 75-storey drop blasted the doors clear off the elevator, but astoundingly, Miss Oliver survived the plummet. Her incredible good luck is due to the coils of support cable underneath the car, which wound up and acted as a cushioning base for the elevator as it rocketed towards the ground.

One employee, Therese Fortier Willig, was in for some secretary work that Saturday and saw the plane hit and the fires rush through the building. She and some co-workers huddled in a small office on the far side of the floor, and waited for the firefighters to rescue them and walk them down the 70+ flights of stairs. Now 81 years old, Ms. Willig lived to see her son George, a toy inventor from the Bronx, climb the side of the World Trade Center’s North Tower in 1977 — he was the world-famous “Human Fly.” And 24 years after that, both witnessed the most sobering reminder yet that, with our worlds in the sky, we must always prepare for the absolutely impossible.

Matt Levy is a licensed NYC tour guide and Junior Partner of The Levys' Unique New York!, a business he runs with his Dad  (www.vintagenytours.com); they are proud to be the only family of licensed NYC tour guides. While not leading tours, Matt likes long walks on the beach, kittens, reading, writing, cooking, cooking with a certain pretty girl, dancing, dancing with a certain pretty girl, talking, talking with a certain pretty girl, and building tall bikes.


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