50 years ago, B-25 hit Empire State Building

July 28, 1995|By Knight-Ridder Newspapers

NEW YORK -- On that fog-shrouded morning 50 years ago today, Therese Fortier was at work literally above the clouds on the 79th floor of the tallest and most-famous building on Earth.

The secretary from Queens loved working in the Empire State Building. On clear days, you could see far into New Jersey from her desk near the southwest side of the building. On stormy days the weather put on a show right "outside the windows," she said.

That made the death and destruction that suddenly engulfed her and her co-workers all the more horrible and memorable.

Minutes before 10 a.m. on that rainy Saturday, July 28, 1945, a terribly off-course and fog-blinded Army B-25 bomber rocketed out of the soupy clouds and crashed into the north side of the 1,250-foot tall building.

The main impact point 975 feet above 34th St. was the 79th floor, then occupied by the War Relief Service of the National Catholic Welfare Conference. Normally, 50 to 70 men and women would have been at work, but because it was Saturday only 17 people, including Ms. Fortier, were there.

She would be one of six survivors. Ten of her colleagues died almost instantly and another died four days later. The three servicemen on the plane also died.

Weighing more than 10 tons and traveling at 250 mph, the plane broke apart as it carved a path of destruction through the 79th floor. Chunks of the building and aircraft, shattered glass and burning fuel cascaded to the streets. Fire and smoke billowed around the top floors.

"I thought we were all going to die," recalled the secretary, who wed in 1946 and became Mrs. George Willig Sr.

Now 70, she lives in retirement with her husband in Queens. She said she is less remembered these days for her towering ordeal than for the towering feat of her son, George Willig Jr., who on May 26, 1977, made his "Human Fly" climb up the 110-story vTC south tower of the World Trade Center. She and her husband also raised five other children.

She recalls standing by her desk and feeling the building shake violently. Because it was still wartime, her first thought was that the building had been bombed.

The pilot of the doomed B-25, 27-year-old Lt. Col. William F. Smith Jr., had returned from Europe a month before the crash. A West Point graduate, he had flown 500 hours of combat duty aboard Flying Fortresses.

Just before taking off from Bedford Field in Massachusetts, Colonel Smith took on a last-minute hitchhiker: Albert Perna, 20, a Navy aviation machinist mate from Brooklyn. He was going home to console his parents, who were mourning the recent death of their other son, also a sailor, in a kamikaze attack on his ship off Okinawa.

Colonel Smith had himself cleared for a "contact" flight to New York's LaGuardia Airport. That meant he would fly below the clouds.

But Colonel Smith inexplicably ended up crossing above the Queensboro Bridge at an altitude of only 500 feet.

Some startled high-rise dwellers in Manhattan actually saw the plane flying below their windows.

There was nearly a crash into the Rockefeller Center complex before the plane, its landing wheels down, veered south above Fifth Ave.

The plane had started to climb sharply when it hit the Empire State Building.

The building was not structurally damaged and was reopened two days later. The damaged floors were repaired by that Christmas.

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