How To Survive A Plane Crash And A Free Fall Through An Elevator Shaft: The Betty Lou Oliver Story

A lot of people have phobias of getting on and off elevators, but accidents and injuries from elevator travel remain a rare phenomenon. Elevator operator Betty Lou Oliver had the unfortunate experience of enduring such an accident in the Empire State Building, but remarkably survived a 75 story fall. What makes her story even more fascinating? Her accident occurred on the same day a B-25 bomber crashed into the Empire State Building.

The 1945 Empire State Building B-25 crash occurred when a plane collided with the Empire State Building. Betty Lou Oliver was only a floor away from the impact. She was lucky to survive this first accident, which makes it remarkable that she survived the subsequent elevator fall. A number of nearly miraculous conditions allowed Oliver to live. Despite enduring two life threatening accidents in a single day, Oliver went on to live a full and happy life. 

  • The Pilot Caused The Crash By Ignoring Orders

    The crash could have been avoided had pilot William Smith followed commands. Prior to attempting to land at La Guardia, Smith phoned the airport requesting clearance. Visibility was nearly zero due to the fog that day, so the La Guardia worker advised Smith not to attempt to land. Rather than heeding this warning, Smith signed off after saying, “Thank you very much.”

    Smith then attempted to land anyway. Without realizing it, he ended up flying over Manhattan. It was only when the clouds cleared that he realized he was flying in between skyscrapers. His decision to ignore orders would prove fatal, as he died in the subsequent crash.

  • It Was A Miracle Oliver Survived The First Accident

    It was a miracle Oliver survived the first accident, making her second miraculous survival even more amazing. She was badly burned when the plane collided with the building and was only a single floor away from where the impact occurred. Fourteen people in the Empire State Building died in the initial collision. If Oliver’s elevator car had been just one floor lower, she likely would not have survived.

  • Oliver Was Thrown From Her Car In The Initial Collision

    During the initial accident, Oliver’s elevator car was on the 80th floor of the building. The plane struck the 79th floor. This caused Oliver to be violently ejected from the elevator, but she got back in to take it to the ground floor in search of aid. That's when things took another morbid turn as the elevator car malfunctioned and began what would have been a death drop in any other situation.

  • Perfect Conditions Allowed Oliver To Survive
    Photo: CNN / YouTube

    Perfect Conditions Allowed Oliver To Survive

    How did Betty Lou Oliver end up evading death after the subsequent 75 story fall? A number of conditions slowed and softened her fall. Had anything been even slightly different, Oliver likely would not have survived the impact.

    As the car fell, pressure built up in the elevator shaft. This provided some extra cushioning below the elevator. Several feet of secondary cables fell to the bottom of the elevator shaft, further softening the impact. There was also a hydraulic plunger in the sub-basement of the Empire State Building, meant to act as a shock absorber, that ended up slowing the car down as it fell. This all resulted in the lighter impact that spared Oliver’s life.

  • The Elevator Was Completely Dismantled In The Crash

    Part of the reason Oliver’s survival is so captivating is the severity of the accident. The elevator was completely destroyed in the crash. All the cables securing the elevator snapped just before it fell, causing it to free fall downward towards the basement. There was no way to stop the fall once it began.

  • Oliver Was Working As An Elevator Operator When The Crash Occurred

    While not a well-known historical event, the 1945 B-25 crash in New York City dominated headlines at the time. New Yorkers were naturally terrified when Smith’s plane collided with the Empire State Building. At the time, this was the tallest building in the world.

    At the time, Betty Lou Oliver was a 19-year-old elevator operator at the Empire State Building.