On July 28, 1945, a ten-ten Army Air Force B-25 bomber, travelling at 250 miles per hour and piloted by Lieutenant Colonel William Franklin Smith Jr., a veteran of 1000 combat hours, received permission to fly across Manhattan from LaGuardia Field to Newark Airport. The La-Guardia tower warned Smith that visibility was limited to two miles, adding, "We're unable to see the top of the Empire State Building."
A few minutes later, the plane crashed into the seventy-eighth and seventy-ninth floors of the Empire State Building, tearing open an eighteen-foot hole.
Pieces of the plane reached the North Bank elevators, doing extensive damage, particuarly in shafts six and seven. One airplane engine lodged itself on an empty elevator, which fell to the pits located beneath the building's basements.
A woman operator, working a South Bank elevator, opened her doors just in time to be doused by burning gasoline from the aircraft. Somehow she emerged on the seventy-fifth floor, hysterical, but alive.
Two office workers then gave her first aid and placed her on a working elevator to be taken to the ground floor. At the last minute they decided not to ride down, leaving her alone with another young female operator. It was Elevator Number Six.
In the meantime, fire raged as several dozen people were trapped by smoke and heat on the 102nd floor observatory in a scene closely resembling The Towering Inferno. Police later credited Muzak-like waltz music, which continued to play despite the crash, with preventing panic.
On the streets below, Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia, his personal limousine hooked to police and fire distress radio frequencies, rushed to direct rescue operations.
The two women in Number Six - one unhurt, the other badly burned - watched the elevator doors close and then heard a loud noise like a pistol shot. It was the weekend elevator cable snapping.
The elevator dropped one-fifth of a mile, its final crash moderated somewhat by either air pockets or safety devices making a last desperate effort to work.
When a teen-aged Coast Guard cadet crawled through the wreckage with a first aid kit he found both women miraculously alive.
"Thank heaven, the Navy's here," one of the women is reported to have said.
They were the passengers on America's only recorded free-fall elevator crash.
The disaster brought out the best in Herbert Fabian, a high school student who used an abandoned elevator to rescue twenty trapped people. He made four round trips, tried to hide from the press and received a $100 war bond as reward for his bravery.
As a result of the elevator six crash, the nation's elevator safety systems were remodeled to provide an independent braking device which works even if all the cables are severed.