Published: July 28, 2022

Lieut. Col. William F. Smith Jr

As Deputy Commanding Officer of the 457th Bomb Group, Lieut. Col. William F. Smith Jr survived more than 500 hours of combat missions in the skies over WWII Europe, flying his last mission on April 20, 1945, only to die three months later, when he flew his B-25 Mitchell Bomber into the Empire State Building.

Smith and his commanding officer had previously flown the bomber from its base in South Dakota to Newark, where Smith’s commanding officer hopped off before Smith flew on to New Bedford, Massachusetts, to visit his wife. On July 28, 1945, Smith was flying back to grab his CO before returning the plane to South Dakota.

"At the present time, I can't see the top of the Empire State Building,” came the warning from an air traffic controller at La Guardia Airport on that foggy Saturday morning.

"Roger, tower, thank you," replied Smith.

Smith thought he was headed for Newark, but soon found himself whizzing past skyscrapers at 200 miles per hour, when suddenly he saw before him the Empire State Building. The plane plowed into the building between the 78th and 79th floors, more than 900 feet above 34th Street. Smith, along with fellow passengers Staff Sergeant Christopher Domitrovich and Navy Aviation Machinist's Mate Albert Perna, were killed instantly, while another eleven civilians inside the building were also killed. Among the people who survived were two women who rode a rollercoaster of fortune that day.

Therese Fortier Willig was working that day as a secretary at the Catholic War Relief office on the 79th floor. Following the crash, Willig and her colleagues crowded into a small room to seal themselves off from the smoke, but she soon felt sure this was the end and so pulled off her high school graduation ring and a friendship ring from her boyfriend and tossed them both out the window.

"I thought we were going to die," she would explain later.

Incredibly, members of the fire department found the rings on the ground below and returned them to her. Years later she married the boy who’d given her the friendship ring and on May 26, 1977, their son George would climb the South Tower of the World Trade Center.

Meanwhile, Betty Lou Oliver, a 19-year-old elevator attendant, was at her post at the 80th floor when Smith’s plane struck. The impact threw her, leaving her with severe burns, as well as a broken pelvis, back, and neck, but it was clear to rescue workers she would survive. That is until they wheeled her on a stretcher into an elevator, whereupon the cable on her elevator car snapped and plunged to the bottom of the shaft, her car fast behind it. By the grace of the cable and the compressed air in the shaft cushioning her fall, Oliver survived.

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