By Brad Dison
It was foggy in New York on the morning of July 28, 1945. Twenty-year-old Betty Lou Oliver made her way to the 102-story Empire State Building where she worked as an “elevator girl.” At 1,250 feet, it was the world’s tallest building. Prior to their push-button automation in the 1970s, elevators were manually controlled. Elevator operators controlled the elevators speed and direction by moving a large lever. Elevator operators were expected to consistently stop their elevator in perfect alignment with each floor. Betty Lou took the job as elevator girl at the Empire State Building while she awaited the return of her husband, a sailor who was overseas. Betty Lou had given proper notice and was to quit working at the Empire State Building within a couple of days.
At about 8:50 a.m., an Army B-25 Mitchell bomber with a crew of three, piloted by Lieutenant Colonel William F. Smith, Jr., left Bedford Army Air Field in Massachusetts en route to Newark Metropolitan Airport in New Jersey. When the pilot neared New York, he radioed the control station at LaGuardia Field for a weather report. Victor Barden, chief control operator at La Guardia reported to Smith that there was a heavy fog which was down to 900 feet, and visibility was worsening. Barden told Smith to descend to 1,000 feet once he had cleared New York City and was over New Jersey. Regulations at the time stipulated that airplanes flying over New York had to remain at an altitude of at least 1,500 feet to avoid skyscrapers.
Barden radioed to Smith about the thick fog and said, “I cannot see the top of the Empire State Building now.” “Roger,” Smith responded in acknowledgement.
For reasons unknown, Smith descended to 1,000 feet while still over New York City. People on the ground looked skyward as they heard the low flying airplane, but they could only see the thick fog. People in nearby skyscrapers saw the B-25 pass by their windows. They, too, were unable to see the Empire State Building because of the thick fog.
At 9:52 a.m., the B-25 struck the 79th floor of the Empire State Building. The force of the crash rocked the building. Fuel from the B-25 erupted into a bright orange flame which destroyed everything on the 78th and 79th floors, and cleared the fog around the building. One of the B-25’s engines broke away from the airplane and flew nearly one hundred feet, tore through seven walls on the 79th floor, destroyed the suspension and safety cables on at least three elevators, and landed with an explosion on the roof of a nearby 17-story building. Other fragments from the airplane and from the building itself landed as far away as five blocks.
Betty Lou was in her elevator above the 80th floor when the airplane struck the building.
She felt a momentary shudder. Suddenly, the elevator plummeted downward. Betty Lou clung to the handrail in the elevator to keep from floating. She felt as though the elevator was leaving her. She worked the controls of the elevator, but got no response. She continued to fall with the elevator. A searing flash of fire enveloped Betty Lou, and she raised her left arm to protect her face. A moment later the fire was gone. Betty Lou tried the controls again, but they still had no effect. She picked up the elevator’s telephone and tried to call the ground floor, but the telephone line was dead. Betty Lou yelled and pounded on the elevator floor and walls.
The elevator continued its decent. At the basement level of the Empire State Building’s elevator system were large oil buffers, one per elevator, which were designed to stop a descending elevator car during an emergency. After falling nearly 1,000 feet, the elevator struck the oil buffer’s piston. However, the elevator was traveling much too fast for the oil buffer to bring the car to a cushioned stop. The elevator struck with such force that it drove the oil buffer’s piston through the floor of the elevator and through the elevator car itself, from bottom to top. The concrete floor below the oil buffer “was crushed like an egg shell.” The piston was so large that, with the exception of an eight-inch space in one of the elevator’s corners, it penetrated and destroyed the elevator. Luckily, this eight-inch space was where Betty Lou was standing when the elevator crashed.
On a normal weekday in 1945, the Empire State Building had a population of about 65,000 people, which consisted of about 15,000 employees and 50,000 visitors. On this day, however, few visitors entered the building because thick fog and intermittent rain limited the views from the observation decks. Only a small number of the building’s employees were working inside the building because it was a Saturday morning. The 78th floor, one of the two floors which had been completely destroyed by fire, was vacant, as were the 81st to 85th floors. Firefighters extinguished the fire in less than fifty minutes. The damage caused by the crash and fire did not weaken the structural integrity of the building. Only a few people were on the streets because of the intermittent rain, none of which were injured by falling debris. Investigators estimated that only about 1,500 people were in the building. Had it not been a rainy Saturday morning, the crash would have certainly been more devastating. Of the estimated 1,500 people in the building, only fourteen people died and another twenty-six people were injured.
Betty Lou was among the injured. She was trapped in the eight-inch space in the corner of her elevator for hours before rescuers located her. She received burns from when her elevator passed through the searing fire on the 79th floor. The force of the elevator’s sudden impact broke her legs and severed her spine. She received bruises and cuts on her body from the oil buffer’s piston and fragments of her elevator. On December 2, 1945, after spending four months in the hospital, Betty Lou left the hospital and was able to walk, albeit with her legs and back in braces, five feet from her wheel chair to a waiting car. When Betty Lou arrived at work on that rainy, foggy, July morning, she had no idea that the events of the day would set a record. You see, Betty Lou Oliver holds the Guinness World Record for “longest fall survived in a lift (elevator).”