Tragedy struck young relief agency in most unlikely way in Manhattan Wayward military plane crashed into headquarters

February 21, 1997|By Ernest F. Imhoff | Ernest F. Imhoff,SUN STAFF

Catholic Relief Services has lost workers to violence in the line of duty, the latest being Dimitri Lascaris, a Greek national slain in 1995 while handing out food in Burundi, Central Africa.

But nothing compares with July 28, 1945. That was the day a military plane cut a terrible swath through the young agency dedicated to helping war victims and the poor.

In one of the country's most sensational airplane accidents, the twin-engine B-25 bomber slammed into the Empire State Building in New York City directly at the point on the 79th floor where the relief agency had its headquarters.

Much of its office staff -- 11 officials -- died at their desks, and five Catholic Relief staff members were injured. The plane's three crew members also died.

"Every year on that day we have a Mass here at headquarters for those people," said Louise C. Wilmot, deputy executive director of the international aid organization, now based in Baltimore.

"You hear about it soon after you begin here," said Thomas Garafalo, a communications aide.

The story is told in "The Sky is Falling," a 1977 book by Arthur Weingarten. The agency was known in 1945 as War Relief Services; "War" was replaced by "Catholic" in 1955.

Lt. Col. William F. Smith Jr., a pilot who had been decorated in the European theater, was flying the plane from Massachusetts to LaGuardia Field in Queens, N.Y.

Toward the end of the flight, he changed his destination to Newark, N.J. He was flying over fog-bound Manhattan when he became disoriented. He thought he had crossed the Hudson River and was over Newark.

At 550 feet, he saw tall buildings looming. He tried to pull up. Too late, the B-25 struck the 79th floor, 913 feet above the street, at 200 mph.

One of the survivors was a secretary, Therese Fortier, who two years ago on the 50th anniversary of the crash, told a reporter, "I don't think any one of us had any idea of what had happened. Who'd have thought a plane?"

Suddenly flames were everywhere. To get away from the smoke, the injured crowded into a small office. "I thought we were going to die," Fortier said. The survivors were rescued by firefighters, but one later died.

The War Department declared the pilot "erred in judgment" in heading for Newark instead of LaGuardia and in flying over Manhattan in unsettled weather.

War Relief Services revived itself. By the end of the 1950s, the agency had programs in 55 countries. By 1997, it was in 80 countries.

The agency's executive director, who was not in the office when the plane hit, later became the archbishop of Washington -- Cardinal Patrick O'Boyle.

Fortier married, and her son, George H. Willig, gained a measure of fame in a high place himself when he climbed 110 stories up the outside of the World Trade Center in New York City in 1977.

A half-century after the crash, his mother, Therese Fortier Willig, said: "Time is wonderful. I don't know whether you can call it a healer, but it makes you forget. I've seen people coming out of fires, tragedies like that. I have to think back and go, 'I was in something like that.' "

Pub Date: 2/21/97

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