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How Betty Lou Oliver Survived a Plane Crash and 1,000-ft Fall on the Same Day

July 28th 1945, was set to be another ordinary day for the residents of New York. In the fog of World War II, its citizens persisted through the hardships and triumphs.

By July 1945, it was becoming ever more apparent that the war was coming to a close and the horrors of battle could be left behind. That was until July 28th, a day that would shape the very fabric of the Empire State Building and the city around it.

The New York City skyline during the 1940s.

20-year-old Betty Lou Oliver awoke early on the morning of July 28th 1945, ready for what was said to have been her last shift as an elevator operator at the Empire State Building.

Betty had worked there for some months and felt a change was due. She expected her last day to pass without incident, and then she could go about her life, but she had no idea what lay around the corner.

The elevator of the Empire State raced up and down 102 floors, with a smiling Betty there to assist tourists and employees.

Outside, Lt Col William Smith was piloting a B-25 bomber plane that took soldiers and other servicemen from Massachusetts to the LaGuardia Airport in NYC.

When Smith had left that morning, conditions in Massachusetts were clear, but as he neared New York, a thick cloud of fog covered the skies.

Smith was not worried about the conditions, despite air traffic control reporting there was ‘almost zero visibility’ over LaGuardia Airport.

William Smith had piloted B-25s and other planes in some of World War II’s most daring and dangerous operations, hence why he had been entrusted to ferry the servicemen.

Shortly before the approach to LaGuardia, Smith radioed the airport and was told not to attempt a landing as the visibility was so poor.

The Crash That Changed The Empire State Building

Confident in his own abilities, Smith ignored the warning and decided to attempt the landing anyway. What Smith didn’t know was that he was flying dangerously close to civilisation.

For whatever reason, Smith took a right instead of a left and within a matter of seconds, Smith realised that he was flying between skyscrapers, but it was too late.

At around 9:40 AM, the B-25 crashed into the side of the Empire State Building between the 78th and 80th floors.

The impact is believed to have killed William Smith, 2 crew members and all 11 servicemen on board. The plane had crashed between the 78th and 80th floors, and 20-year-old Betty Lou Oliver’s elevator just so happened to be on the 80th floor.

The entry hole made by the bomber.

Those who witnessed the crash recalled the entire floor being engulfed in flames. The impact threw Betty from the elevator and into the air before she came crashing down onto the hard concrete floor and into the flames.

Others were not so lucky; 14 tourists on the observation deck of the 86th floor died as a result of the crash, and this was just the beginning of the disaster.

Fire raged through offices and hallways of the Empire State Building on the 78th, 79th and 80th floors. Part of the plane’s engine had fallen down an elevator shaft in the building, and there was now a gaping 18×20-foot hole in the side of the Empire State Building.

Betty had been badly burned by the flames and had suffered a broken back, pelvis and neck as a result of being thrown from her elevator. Whilst in immeasurable pain, Betty was grateful to be alive, realising she had stared death in the face and won.

Rescue workers quickly made their way to the 78th, 79th and 80th floors and began helping the injured.

Staring Death In The Face, Twice

Betty was placed onto a stretcher and put back into the elevator that had so cruelly ejected her earlier.

As Betty lay on the stretcher, she tried to calm her mind, knowing that within a matter of minutes, she would be on the ground floor and on the way to the hospital, or at least, that’s what she thought.

Unbeknownst to Betty and the rescue workers, the crash had severely weakened the cables of the elevators and parts of the engine had been thrown down one shaft.

An internal view of the destruction caused by the aircraft.

Mere seconds after the elevator began moving, a loud snapping sound reverberated through the shaft. The cables had snapped, and Betty was now hurtling towards the ground at breakneck speed.

The elevator was over 1,000 feet high, around 75 stories, a fall that no human could survive. But Betty Lou Oliver was no ordinary human.

The elevator’s cable had fallen to the floor first, providing a cushion to the blow. The compression of air as she hurtled down 75 stories also helped to cushion her landing.

After what felt like minutes, Betty was at the bottom of the elevator shaft, and rescuers rushed over to the scene. Incredibly, Betty stirred after just a few seconds, shocking everyone.

Betty Lou Oliver had cheated death not once but twice within a matter of minutes. She had fallen 1,000 feet and lived to tell the tale. Whilst Betty was alive, she wasn’t out of the woods completely.

View from above the impact zone shows how high Betty would’ve been when she fell. Image via Cladrite Radio.

The fall had left the elevator so mangled that Betty had to be cut out of the wreckage. Her back, pelvis and neck were already broken from being thrown from the elevator on the 80th floor, and her injuries were only exacerbated by the fall.

A Life Well Lived

Despite pushing human endurance to the limit, Betty Lou Oliver was up and walking again within a matter of weeks. The Guinness World Record Office visited her, and to this day, she still holds the record for surviving the longest elevator fall.

After the incident, Betty chose a quieter life and moved to Fort Smith, Arizona, to be with her husband, Oscar.

The incident had clearly shaken Betty, and she decided to stay out of the spotlight. The only appearance she made was 5 months after the fall when she returned to the Empire State Building to ride in the elevator that had once housed her career and almost cost her her life. 

Betty Lou Oliver passed away on November 24th 1999, in Fort Smith, Arizona, surrounded by her 3 children and 7 grandchildren. Betty never spoke of the physical or psychological trauma she suffered from the fall.


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