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Tall buildings: low cloud

July 28, 1945

Few shoppers were on the streets of New York at 9am on the morning of July 28, 1945.

Those who were, braved a light rain and could see the tops of buildings were obscured by low cloud. It was a Saturday, and that contributed to light traffic as well.

The war in Europe was over, and unknown to those citizens, an atomic bomb had been tested in New Mexico and another would incinerate Hiroshima two weeks hence.

Far to the northeast, Navy Aviation Machinist Mate Albert Perna was climbing aboard an Army B-25 near Boston. He was on Emergency Leave to visit his parents, after receiving word that his brother had been killed in the Pacific, and was grateful to take the free ride home to New York.

The Aircraft Commander, Lt Col. William Franklin Smith Jr., had also been on leave. A veteran of over a thousand hours of combat time in B-17s, his whole outfit had been reassigned to Sioux Falls, to train on the B-29. His CO was waiting to be picked up for the trip west.

The airplane was a B-25D, tail number 41-30577. It bore the whimsical nose art of , “Old John Feather Merchant.” With their days as a bomber limited, a lot of ‘Mitchells’ found excellent use as squadron hacks, and VIP transports: the Lear Jets of 1945!

The third man aboard was Ssgt Christopher Domitrovich. They launched from Laurence G. Hanscom Field, in Bedford, Massachusetts for the one hour flight. The next, and only, contact was a weather request for New York Municipal Airport, (later LaGuardia.)

The weather was stinko. Significantly, the reply mentioned that the tower, “Couldn’t see the top of the Empire State Building. Smith was cleared to Newark.

There was a 2,000 foot MDA over Manhattan at the time. For some reason, the B-25 busted that. It is possible that the crew saw the East River, and thought it was the Hudson?

In any event, they dropped right into the buildings of Midtown New York. There were several near misses with famous buildings, …then their luck ran out. The southbound Old John Feather Merchant plowed into the 79-80th floor of the Empire State Building.

One engine went completely through the building and burned out an artist’s loft, across a street, and 68 stories below!

The light traffic saved lives on the streets, but the impact was a direct hit on a Catholic War relief office. The crash and fire killed 11 in the building, in addition to the three on the plane. Most were young girl office workers.

One who had a good day was elevator operator Betty Lou Oliver. She had been injured, and was put in an elevator for transport to care workers below. Unknown to all, the cables had been damaged. When it started down, it went down, …in a near free fall of about 75 stories!

The operator was killed, but the cables that collapsed into the elevator pit cushioned the crash enough that Oliver survived, …and returned to the building a couple months later.

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