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On This Day: Airplane Crashes Into Empire State Building, Killing 14

Written By Mark Moran
Last updated: February 15, 2023

On July 28, 1945, a B-25 Mitchell bomber flying in dense fog struck the Empire State Building, killing the plane’s three-man crew and 11 office workers in the building.

B-25 Flown Into Empire State Building

During World War II there was concern that America’s enemies would attempt to attack the Empire State Building, a New York City landmark and icon of American engineering. Ironically, the only tragedy at the Empire State Building was an accidental plane crash by an American plane just weeks before the war officially ended.

On July 28, 1945, a B-25 Mitchell bomber, piloted by Lt. Col. William Franklin Smith Jr. and carrying two others, was flying from New Bedford, Mass., to LaGuardia Airport in Queens. During the flight Smith asked for and received permission from air traffic control at LaGuardia to continue on to Newark, N.J. The air traffic controllers cautioned Smith that there was low visibility due to fog, telling him that they could not see the top of the Empire State Building.

Unable to see the New York City skyline, Smith flew through Manhattan at a dangerously low altitude and narrowly missed striking a building at 42nd Street and Fifth Avenue. Traveling at 200-225 miles per hour, he could not see the Empire State Building until it was too late. “In the next instant there happened what many a Manhattanite had often predicted and feared,” wrote Time.

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The plane struck the Empire State Building from the north side between the 78th and 79th floors, causing an 18-foot hole in the massive structure. Gasoline spread inside the building and caused explosions. One of the plane’s engines ripped through the building and down an elevator shaft. Debris traveled as far as five blocks away.

The accident killed 14 people: all three airmen from the B-25 and 11 civilians working in the skyscraper.

The War Department concluded “that the pilot ‘erred in judgment when he elected to fly over Manhattan in weather conditions which prevailed at the time’ and that he should not have been cleared to proceed to Newark,” according to The New York Times.

Background: The Empire State Building

Sources in this Story

  • The New York Times: Flaming Horror on the 79th Floor; 50 Years Ago Today, in the Fog, a Plane Hit the World’s Tallest Building
  • Time: New York: In the Clouds
  • The Guardian: Empire State Building

Construction on the Empire State Building began in 1930, financed primarily by John Jakob Raskob of General Motors, who was competing with Walter Chrysler to build the tallest building in New York City.

Construction took slightly more than a year, and the building rose at an incredible rate of four and one-half floors per week. When it was completed, it stood at 1,454 feet, surpassing the Chrysler Building as the world’s tallest building.

View galleries of the Empire State Building’s construction from the New York Public Library, Life magazine, and The New York Times. Watch footage of its construction in a British Pathe newsreel.

Charles Eames

Mark Moran is a seasoned Internet executive. In 1998, he became Executive Vice President and General Counsel of 24/7 Real Media. He led the company through dramatic global expansion and revenue growth, completing 14 acquisitions in two years.

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