New York on Fire – Book Excerpt – B-25 Bomber Crashes

Book Excerpt: B-25 Bomber Crashes

New York on Fire by Hilton Obenzinger



* B-25 Bomber Crashes Into the Empire State Building

* Triangle Shirtwaist Company

* Burning Churches

B-25 Bomber Crashes Into the Empire State Building

July 28, 1945

Colonel Smith lowered the landing gear of the B-25
thinking he was about to land in Newark
when through the fog he saw that he was
heading directly for Radio City Music Hall
Quickly he began to raise his landing-gear
tilting his nose up almost to a stall
veering just past the buff-colored Salmon Building

They say one of the secretaries in the Catholic War Relief Office
on the 79th floor of the Empire State Building
could see Colonel Smith’s Clark Gable mustache
as the cockpit filled up with limestone
and chrome mullions from around the building’s windows
Streams of molten high-octane fuel cascaded
down the side of the building
The GIs on the deck of the troopship on the Hudson
shouted, The Japs are bombing New York with V-2s!

When the bomber hit, the left engine separated from the fuselage
shot diagonally through the thick walls to the shaft of the G bank of elevators
to slice through six braided steel lifting cables the size of wrists
the engine rebounding off the steel fire wall
to fall in flames down the shaft

The Number Six elevator of the G shaft with Betty Lou Oliver
alone at the controls begins to fall
with the exploding engine plummeting down
towards the car’s roof

Betty Lou Oliver, her last day. Said bye-bye to Mr. Needleman with the belt
business on the 79th floor. Her husband Oscar soon back from the Navy.
She’ll wave at the pier. He’ll be sate from Kamikaze. Got a new blue dress
with blue-and-white spectator pumps. Meet her sister at the Russian Tea
Room for farewell lunch. Slides the big brass handle all the way back to close
the elevator door. She lands on her behind grasping the brass handle, belting
out, St. Louis Blues at the top of her lungs. When you get your own empty
elevator to sing in without people making funny faces, and this the last day,
you simply must sing grasping that brass handle shutting the door and
moving the elevator down for coffee break.

So there’s a thud. The car shudders. It begins to drop. The red lights whiz
past 73 72 71. The floors blur. She punches the Stop button. The car
descends faster, vibrating. She grabs the phone dangling in front of her. She
taps the hook several times. What can she say to the starter anyway? What
can he do? Suddenly she feels her feet rising above the floor. Cables and
flaming metal crash through the roof. Her body is separate from herself. A
shriek fills the shaft. She is rising, floating, weightless.

When seventeen year-old Coast Guard apprentice medic Donald Molony
climbs in the sub-basement of the G-shaft
he does not expect anyone to be found alive
but when he crawls through the small hole in the wreckage
of car bumpers pushed through the car’s roof
she is there moaning. Thank God, the Navy’s here. I’ll be
OK now
, she says according to the New York Times
but Molony only hears, Drowning… drowning
as the water from the firehose fills up the shaft.

They say it’s a miracle she’s alive. When they lift her face down into the
ambulance with a rabbi and a priest on each side babbling in Hebrew and
Latin she can feel it. She floats above herself, looking down, weightless and
falling. A miracle, they say. But she keeps the sensation to herself. Oscar
comes in a few days. By her bedside, tears in his eyes. He’s the one back
from the war, from danger. And the war almost over. Again she feels herself
lifting from the bed. The sensation of falling yet rising. Like being caught in
an endless moment of indecision. Between living and dying. She cannot
remember the point of impact. Only that she is outside herself falling. She
knows eventually she must hit the ground. What feels like permanent suspension
is only the moment before everything changes. Oscar holds her hand.
She knows she will have many children and will live to be a grandma. But that
does not matter. She hears Walter Winchell announce on the radio that we
dropped the Atom bomb on some city in Japan. She is floating towards the
ceiling of the ward, failing, as the hospital drops towards the sun.

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