Lieutenant Colonel William F. Smith, USAAF, was a combat pilot during the Second World War. He commanded the 750th Squadron of the 457th Bombardment Group in Europe from April to December 1944. Stationed with the group all through the war, he either flew in or helped plan all 236 missions the group flew during the war, which he started as a Second Lieutenant.
Yet it is for another in-flight incident that Smith is remembered. On this date in 1945, on his way to a new assignment in the Midwest, Colonel Smith became disoriented in flight over New York. He made a wrong turn after getting clearance to land at Newark Airport and instead flew his B-25 bomber into the 79th floor of the Empire State Building, killing himself, two members of his crew and eleven people inside the building.
One of the plane’s engines became dislodged, fell and crashed onto the roof of a building a block away, starting a fire which destroyed a penthouse art studio. Smith’s plane carved an 18-by-20-foot hole in the side of the building — and forever changed the life of a young woman named Betty Lou Oliver.
Twenty years old, Oliver, of Fort Smith, Arkansas, had just been married and was awaiting the return of her husband from the Pacific while working as an elevator operator in the building. July 28 was to be her last day of work, and she was on the 80th floor when Smith’s plane hit.
Accounts of her injuries from the crash of Smith’s plane varied, but what isn’t in doubt is that Oliver was loaded onto a stretcher by aid workers and placed in her elevator for a trip to the ground floor and then to the hospital. However, the impact of the plane had weakened the elevator’s cables, which snapped when Oliver’s stretcher was placed inside and the doors closed.
As a result, Oliver’s trip to the ground floor was much more sudden than had been anticipated — about 1,000 feet down the elevator shaft, 75 stories into the sub-basement.
Yet, Oliver survived the fall due to a variety of reasons, and more than a little bit of miraculous luck. She recounted the harrowing tale:
“The elevator seemed to stop for a moment. Then it began plummeting downward. I tried desperately to stop it. Then a flash of fire enveloped me and I raised my left arm to protect my face…(I) felt as though the car were leaving me — I was going down so fast I had to hang on to the sides of the elevator to keep from floating.”
The concrete subfloor beneath the elevator’s point of impact shattered like eggshells, but Oliver was safe inside. More or less — she still had to be cut from the wreckage — but amazingly, she was alive.
How did Oliver survive? For one thing, she was in a corner of the elevator when it made impact, which meant that when the hydraulic plunger in the sub-basement designed to act as a shock absorber instead pierced the floor of the elevator due to its tremendous speed, it missed her.
Also, the shorn cables had piled up in the bottom of the shaft, acting as a sort of steel cushion, and air pressure buildup from the drop of the elevator down the shaft also acted as a secondary cushion. As such, Oliver is listed in the Guinness Book of World Records as having survived the longest fall in an elevator.
Hospitalized for injuries variously listed as a broken back, pelvis and legs, Oliver spent eight months in the hospital before being released. She went on to live a long and happy life with her husband Oscar, having three children and seven grandchildren. Oscar died in 1986 and Betty Lou 13 years later. They are buried side by side in Fort Smith National Cemetery.
Happy Sunday and enjoy today’s open thread!