It was the tallest man-made structure in the world when it first reached for the sky way back in 1931. I was six years years old, and witnessed the opening ceremonies with my dad.
He and his brother, who owned a Manhattan men’s clothing store nearby on 38th Street and Broadway, had invitations. They took me and other family members to 34th Street and Fifth Avenue for the historic occasion at the new structure.
With just a vague memory of the event, I recall the Empire State Building was truly a skyscraper, big and bright, rising higher and higher, way beyond my stretched-neck view. There were a lot of important-looking men there at the ceremony, all dressed formal with top hat. I recognized President Herbert Hoover, but not the man on crutches, then-New York Governor Franklin D. Roosevelt.
My next visit to the Empire State Building, just 13 years later, was a very different experience. I was a 19-year-old sailor in the summer of 1945, and home on leave. I had served on a troop ship in the Pacific during the invasions of Iwo Jima and Okinawa in World War II.
I was visiting my uncle at his home in Brooklyn, and on that day we had just arrived at his store in Manhattan for his 10 a.m. opening. Then, suddenly we heard a loud crashing noise that echoed among the tall buildings from the direction of Fifth Avenue.
I had immediate fearful thoughts of how our ship had fought through Kamikaze bombing attacks. They were suicidal efforts by the Japanese aircraft against our ships to prevent American landings. They caused more Navy casualties in just two months in early 1945 than had been suffered previously in the entire four years of war.
We soon heard fire engines and ambulances screaming through the streets. A police car nearby had its radio on, and we went over to listen to breaking news of the disaster at the Empire State Building. Because I’d been through Navy emergency medical training, I told my uncle I’d volunteer to help. The police car took me to the scene in a few minutes.
What had happened was the pilot of an Army Air Corps Mitchell B-25 bomber had become confused in thick fog as he was descending for a landing at a Long Island airport, and didn’t realize how low he was flying.
The bomber hit the north side of the Empire State Building at the 79th Floor. It disintegrated, with one engine passing all the way through and landing on another building below. Fortunately, the B-25 had no bombs aboard to magnify the disaster. However, all three members of the crew and eleven people in the building were killed.
When I arrived at the site, emergency workers were already inside removing the dead, helping the injured and extinguishing fires. I was assigned to a guard detail of police and servicemen on the sidewalks to make room for equipment, and to control crowds of onlookers.
Because the terrible accident happened on a Saturday, many of the devastated offices on the 78th, 79th and 80th floors were empty or with smaller than usual employee staffs. The death and injury toll would have been much higher if it had happened on a weekday.
The memory of that tragedy has been with me ever since. Then, in 2001, when terrorists crashed commercial aircraft into the World Trade Center buildings just blocks away in Lower Manhattan, the horrible memories returned. I was reminded of the tragic 1945 accident at the Empire State Building.