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August 13th, 2014 ~ Vol. 84 No. 31
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Looking Back - John Kinnear
Still King of the Skyscrapers
Crowsnest Pass Herald Front Page
Damaged 78th and 79th floors
Author’s Note: “This article was first written four years before 9/11 and has been updated but I have left a profound statement in the piece unaltered which I made back then which I have italicized and which unfortunately, four years after I made it, did not come to pass”.

In 1953, at the impressionable age of 5, I was plunked down in a seat in the Orpheum Theater in Blairmore for a mind blowing matinee. There, clutching a bag of popcorn and a "cherry blossom" I watched in wide eyed terror as the biggest, baddest gorilla in the world roared onto the screen. I remember being paralyzed with fear as the mighty "King Kong", clutching Cardston's very own Fay Wray, climbed to the top of what was then the tallest building in the world, the Empire State Building.
The screams throughout the theater as Kong peered into one of the Empires 7500 windows looking for Fay were memorable. And who could forget the scene where that doomed gorilla gently placed her on the observation deck and proceeded to climb to the top to do battle with U.S. Air force bi-planes.
This little boy's memory of that misunderstood ape and that immense skyscraper are as vivid in my mind today as they were 61 years ago and yes I still have the occasional gorilla nightmare.
In its heyday the Empire State building was a marvel of engineering. Seven million man hours and 60,000 tons of steel, erected in just six months, went into this mammoth structure. Its foundation is 55 feet below ground level and its total height is 1454 feet which includes a 254 foot high TV tower with a lightning rod on top. It has 73 elevators, some of which will take you from the 80th floor to the ground in 45 seconds. Gasp!
With observation decks on the 86th and 102nd floors, it was and still is a popular tourist attraction. When it was first finished the building had a mooring mast on the top for dirigibles. I don't know about you folks but deplaning 1450 feet above the ground is not my idea of fun.
It is said that the static electricity buildup is so mammoth on top that under the right conditions if you stick your hand through the observatory fence St. Elmo's fire will stream from your fingertips. Kissing your girlfriend up there could sometimes be a shocking experience.
The building is so rock solid that it sways no more than a 1/4 inch at the 86th floor in a strong wind. While the "Empire" has long since been surpassed on the Manhattan skyline with monsters like the World Trade Center twin towers it is still a marvel to behold.
There is one amazing story about the Empire that not many know that stands as tragic testimony to its rugged design. It involves an incident in 1945 that is just as astounding to revisit today as the day it happened.
Saturday July 28, 1945 the Empire withstood a collision the likes of which no other building has or hopefully will ever have to endure. On that day a decorated pilot named Lt. Col. William F. Smith managed to get himself turned around in a flight from Bedford Massachusetts to Newark New Jersey. He was flying a B-25 bomber known as "Old John Feather Merchant" at the time and had a USAAF staff sergeant and a Navy aviation machinist’s mate on board with him. The B-25 was the type of bomber Doolittle used on his now infamous raids on Tokyo. The details of the Doolittle attack is a story that will blow your mind.
continued below...


As Lt. Col. Smith's plane approached New York he was advised by the La Guardia control tower to land there because of surface fog, drizzle and a cloud ceiling of only 700 feet. He stubbornly chose to try and make it to Newark on the other side of Manhattan Island and was warned a little later that the top of the Empire State building was hidden from view.
It wasn't long before Smith became disorientated and thinking he had passed over the island he lowered his landing gear. Horrified New Yorkers in smaller office towers were drawn to their windows then by the roar of his Mitchell bomber as he careened blindly through the city's sky scraper section at 250 mph. A man on the observation tower of the RCA building in Rockefeller Center actually saw the plane pass by a good 100 feet below him!
Once he realized he was trapped in that maze of skyscrapers Smith began a desperate climb and tried to retract his gear. He could not climb quickly enough and his craft slammed headlong into the 78th and 79th floors of the Empire where the B-25 burst into an orange ball of flame. The occupants of the 79th, employees of the National Catholic Welfare Conference didn't know what hit them. Within moments ten of them and the three men in the plane were crushed or burned to death.
Both engines of the plane tore loose on impact, one flying across the 79th floor spraying fuel as it went. It smashed through the elevator shaft and plunged 79 floors to the basement. In its wake it left 800 gallons of burning gasoline that cascaded down the stairwells all the way to the 75th floor.
The other engine and an 1100 pound landing gear ripped through the 78th floor which was mercifully unoccupied at the time. It split apart with part of the engine and the landing gear plowing through seven interior walls and clean out the other side of the building where it bombed through the roof of another building far below. The main chunk of that engine blasted through a thick elevator shaft wall and severed the cables of an elevator being operated by one Betty Lou Oliver on her last day at work. She was passing the 76th floor at the time and her car then plummeted straight to the basement in a virtual free fall.
I should mention here that having worked in Calgary's office towers for eight years the thought of being in an elevator free fall crossed my mind more than a few times. Every time one lurched unexpectedly I would mentally brace myself for that ride to hell and remind myself to remember to jump up at the moment of impact.
Incredibly Betty Lou survived the 1000 foot fall, suffering a broken back and a leg snapped in seven places. She was pulled to safety through the roof hatch by a guy named Don Molony, a coast guard medic who was passing by at the time of the crash. He then ran up 79 flights of smoke filled stairs and promptly rescued one Catherine O'Connor whom he carried down to the ground floor. The New York fire department did an incredible job that day also. They could only get to the 67th floor by elevator and were forced to pack their fire hoses and other gear up another dozen flights of stairs. (Does this sound familiar?) Somehow these guys managed to put out the flames in just 40 minutes. While the damage seemed horrendous the Empire was quickly repaired and four months later any evidence of what had happened was gone.
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August 13th ~ Vol. 84 No. 31
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