Monday, July 28, 2014

A Bomber, a Building, and the Fog

Smoke and flames engulf the higher floors of the Empire State Building after being struck by a B-25 Bomber.

On the morning of September 11, 2001 I was in the office of Briargate Elementary School in Cary, Illinois where I was head building custodian.  It was a few minutes before the beginning of classes.  Busses were beginning to pull up to the front of the school with their full loads.  Teachers were flitting in an out to check their mailboxes.  I was leaning on the front counter chatting with the school secretary and the nurse.  As usual a radio was quietly playing.  We weren’t paying close attention.  The nurse first realized something was amiss and darted over to turn up the volume.  After a bit of confusion we learned that an airplane had slammed into the World Trade Center Towers in New York City.  None of us knew quite what that meant.  And none of us suspected that it might be a terrorist attack.  Almost the first words out of my mouth were something like, “A bomber hit the Empire State Building during World War II.”  Then all hell broke loose, the telephones began to ring off the hook, and shaken teacher began pouring into the office, some crying, wondering what to do…
The event that I dredged from my memory that morning occurred on Saturday, July 28, 1944.  On that distant morning the skies over the Big Apple were not a crystalline, perfect blue, but engulfed in a deep fog.  The confused pilot of a B-25 Mitchel Army Air Force bomber took a wrong turn and slammed into the side of the world tallest building between its 78th and 80th floors.
An Army Air Force B-25 Mitchel medium bomber in flight.

Earlier that morning the B-25 with the name Old John Feather Merchant painted on its nose took off from Bedford Army Air Field in Massachusetts on a routine personnel transportation mission bound for Newark, New Jersey.  In the pilot’s seat was Lt. Colonel William Franklin Smith, Jr, an experience combat veteran who had miraculously completed his 25 missions over Europe and was now back in the states flying non stressful milk runs like this one.  The flight was so routine that Smith had neither a co-pilot nor a navigator.  Staff Sargent Christopher Domitrovich, a radio operator, was the only other crew member.  There was one passenger, Navy Aviation Mate Albert Perna who had hitched a ride on what was supposed to be a dead head flight to pick up other passengers.
As Col. Smith approached metropolitan New York he flew into a dense fog.  He radioed for permission to land in Newark.  The tower strongly recommended against it.  “We can’t even see the Empire State Building” a controller said.  Instead he was directed to land at New York Municipal Airport, now known as LaGuardia, which is on the north end of the Borough of Queens on Long Island jutting out into the East River.  But Smith, with the single mindedness of a veteran bomber pilot, was determined to complete his mission as assigned.  He would not land at LaGuardia.  He did not directly refuse the request not to proceed to Newark.  His last transmission was a simple if cryptic, “Thank you very much.”
He began a descent toward the New Jersey field but somehow got confused and turned in toward Manhattan’s dense forest of skyscrapers instead of over open water for the approach to the field.  About the time he passed the Chrysler Building there is evidence that the fog lifted enough for him to realize that he was fly amid the buildings.  He began to try to correct.  But it was too late.  Moments later at 9:40 am, his plane slammed into the Empire State Building.
The plane smacked into the offices of National Catholic Welfare Services on the 79th floor which were quickly engulfed in a ball of flame.  Therese Fortier Willig a twenty year old clerk recalled:
In the other side of the office, all I could see was flames Mr. Fountain [her boss] was walking through the office when the plane hit the building and he was on fire — I mean, his clothes were on fire, his head was on fire. Six of us managed to get into this one office that seemed to be untouched by the fire and close the door before it engulfed us. There was no doubt that the other people must have been killed.
And indeed they were.  Most of the 11 people in the building who were killed were on this floor and in this office.  Some were incinerated at their desks.  Others were engulfed by the fire wall as they tried to escape.  Mr. Fountain continued walking, on fire until co-workers put him out.  He was taken to a hospital where he died in agony days later.  Willig and her cohorts behind that door survived with only smoke inhalation injuries until rescued by firefighters.
On board the plane Col. Smith and Sgt. Domitrovich, each strapped into their seats, were killed instantly and their bodies burnt.  Perna, the young sailor, was thrown clear of the wreckage and his body fell down an elevator shaft and was not discovered for two days.
The force of the impact tore the two engines, from the wings.  One tore completely through the building from the north fa├žade where impact was made, out the south wall.  It landed on the penthouse of a building across the street which was destroyed by fire.  The second engine severed the cables of two elevators before falling down a shaft.  Betty Lou Oliver, a 19 year old elevator operator dropped 73 floors in her car.  Miraculously she was not killed but sustained a broken pelvis, back and neck.  She continues to hold an unenviable recordfor surviving the longest free fall in an elevator.
On dozens of floors of the building the force of the impact hurled office workers to the floor or against walls.  Many sustained injuries from being struck by falling furniture and other objects, in addition to those who were struck by debris from the crash its self.  The fire and smoke and the damage to the elevators trapped hundreds in their offices where many suffered smoke inhalation.  There was naturally panic.  One man, Paul Dearing, leapt to his death from a window in fear of being caught in the fire.
On the ground outside and in buildings in the area, the collision stunned observers, who were shaken by the impact.  They could see the rear third of the bomber, with its distinctive dual wide spaced vertical tail stabilizers clearly visible as smoke and flames billowed from the building.
The response by the New York City Fire Department was stellar despite the fact that this fire was higher and more intense than any they had ever experienced—or trained for.  Fire fighters had to trudge up staircases carrying hoses and heavy gear.  Survivor Willig recalled:
…and all of a sudden here were firemen and they’re coming to rescue us, all dressed up in their raincoats, whatever they wear.  It was just wonderful. We climbed out through the broken glass. I was just grateful to be alive.
Firemen led—or carried hundreds to safety and fought the intensely hot blaze.  Within 40 minutes of reaching the blaze they had the fire under control.  Damage from the flames was confined to only two floors.  The fire remains the highest major blaze ever successfully extinguished.
Damage to the 78th and 79th floors was naturally substantial.  But the building itself was structurally sound and as soon as elevator service was restored tenants in most of the building were able to open for business on the following Monday.  In three short months crews repaired bent girders, closed and sealed the holes in the outer walls, and restored the two floors of offices.  Some damage to the outer stone walls can still be seen.  Cost of the repairs was estimated at the time to be about $1 million—$13 million in current value.
When the repairs were complete, National Catholic Welfare Services, now known as Catholic Relief Services, moved right back into their former space.  The organization continues to occupy the suit to this day.
Lt. Colonel William Franklin Smith, Jr
Subsequent investigations lay the blame for the accident squarely on the shoulders of the late and unfortunate Col. Smith.  They found that aircraft crossing Manhattan at that point were expected to maintain an altitude of at least 2,000 feet.  He struck the building at only 913 feet.  There were also questions about why the Army would allow such a low priority mission be flown at all to a destination known the likely be souped in.
Within eight months of the collision the Federal government offered cash settlements to victims and their surviving family members.  Most accepted the payments, but some sought to sue the Army for negligence.  But in those days it was illegal for private citizens to sue the Federal government or any of its agencies for damage.  The accident helped speed the new Federal Tort Claims Act of 1946, with provisions making it retroactively apply to victims of the Empire State crash.
After 9/11 I was not the only one to remember the 1944 crash.  Conspiracy theorists seized on the survival of the Empire State Building with minimal structural damage while the two towers of the World Trade center each collapsed after being hit by a jet liner as proof that something nefarious happened in the latter crashes.  Of course the theorists were stupidly wrong.  The severity of the impacts can hardly be compared, and the buildings were of very different construction.
The B-25 weighed about 27,000 pounds and was traveling at an air speed of around 200 miles per hour, carrying a normal fuel load of 974 gallons at take-off, much of which had been used in the flight.  By contrast each 9/11 Boeing 727-200 jet weighed around 274000 pounds, one striking a tower at 470 mph and the other a 590 mph, and were each carrying about 10,000 gallons of jet fuel on impact.  The kinetic energy of the 2001 collisions were exponentially greater than the 1944 crash.
And the Empire State Building, constructed on a skeleton of relatively closely spaced steel beams and clad in thick layers of limestone was much sturdier that the Twin Towers which were built with lighter weight manganese alloy steel spaced wider apart and clad in essentially a glass curtain.  The manganese alloy also actually burned more readily than the old steel of the classic skyscraper. 
Of course these facts will not stop any ignoramuses from flapping their jaws.

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