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28 July 1945: the Empire State Building and the B-25 accident

What happened this week in the History of Industry? It is to answer this question that Global Industrie invites you to rediscover, every week, a key event which occurred around this time… in another age. This week, let’s discover a little-known episode in the history of one of the most famous buildings in the world, an accident which unfortunately foreshadows the fateful events of September 11, 2001. 



Although its name probably means nothing to you, you are nevertheless most likely familiar with the North American B-25 Mitchell. This aircraft, named after General William (“Billy”) Mitchell, a pioneer of aviation and commander of the American air forces in France in the First World War, is in fact THE iconic twin-engine bomber of World War II. The most widely produced aircraft in its category at the time, it distinguished itself throughout the conflict in multiple exploits, thus earning itself a starring role in numerous Hollywood movies such as Pearl Harbor and Midway. However, if there was a leading role which this jewel of the American armed forces could have done without, it was the one it played at the end of the war, on the 28th of July 1945…



On that day, a dense fog hung over New York. So much so that the rare pedestrians strolling in the early hours of the morning in the streets of the Big Apple plunged into semi-darkness could not make out the outlines of what was then the highest building in the world, the famous Empire State Building. Its 102 stories had reached up to a height of 381 meters – and even 444 meters if you counted its antenna – since its inauguration on the 1st of May 1931.

Suddenly, they heard the roar of aircraft engines. The pilot flying this B25 was having a lot of difficulty in navigating visually. He thus alerted the controllers with whom he was in contact, saying "it’s very hard, I can’t even see the Empire State"… Fateful words pronounced just before crashing into the 78th and 79th floors on the north face of the prestigious building.

On the ground, panic broke out. Visibility being practically zero, the few potential witnesses had not been able to make anything out, and although the armistice had been signed almost three months earlier, on the 8th of May 1945, Japan, for its part, had still not surrendered. People thus imagined that it might be a terrorist attack carried out by a kamikaze to strike America at its heart… This was moreover one of the possibilities which was evoked the following day in France in Le Figaro, which devoted part of its front page to this event, alongside the trial of Marshal Pétain. 



The noise of the explosion brought the population out in throngs, mesmerized witnesses to the huge fire which followed and which led to the biggest deployment of firemen the city had ever seen. A total of 14 people died: 3 aircraft crew members and 11 civilians working in the building at the time. The firefighters were particularly effective, the fire being brought under control within barely 40 minutes.

Some of the people in the building survived only by a miracle, such as Betty Lou Oliver, a lift operator who was working right next to the aircraft’s point of impact. Having been incredibly lucky to survive the collision, she decided to take the lift on which she had been working to go down to the rescue workers and have her minor wounds treated. However, the lift had been damaged by the accident and fell through 75 stories. In spite of this, it was an unharmed Betty Lou who was pulled out of the lift by the firemen upon her somewhat sudden return to ground level … In fact she still holds a place in the Guinness Book of Records for this reason!

In spite of the damage and the deaths, the building reopened the following Monday. The building had withstood the shock and the human losses were much lower than could have been feared, due to the early hour of the accident. A good fortune which was unfortunately not to be shared, half a century later, by the employees in the World Trade Center…

"Progress and disaster are two sides of the same coin"– Hannah Arendt



- 27 July (1990): Citroen stops production of the legendary 2CV
- 29 July (1921): the Swiss aviator François Durafour lands his plane near Mont Blanc
- 29 July (1957): founding of the International Atomic Energy Agency
- 29 July (1958): creation of the American space agency NASA
- 29 July (1969): Mariner VI takes the first close-up photographs of the planet Mars
- 31 July (1944): Antoine de Saint-Exupéry disappears in his plane
- 31 July (2008): the American probe Phoenix confirms the presence of water on Mars
- 1st August (2020): commissioning of the Barakah nuclear power plant in the United Arab Emirates, the first in the Arab world 
- 2 August (1870): opening of the Tower Subway in London, the first “tube” type railway