It was July 1945, the waning days of World War II. Germany surrendered in May, but the war in the Pacific continued with the possibility of a difficult invasion of Japan on the horizon.
War Relief Services was two years old. The agency that would become Catholic Relief Services a decade later had resettled refugees from Poland in Mexico and was working to help the millions of displaced across Europe.
Headquartered in New York, War Relief Services benefitted from two significant Catholic patrons — John Raskob, who had made a fortune investing in General Motors, and Al Smith, the former New York governor and Democratic presidential nominee. They had partnered to build the Empire State Building. It opened on May 1, 1931, the world’s tallest building, towering a proud 1,050 feet above Manhattan. But with the economy sputtering through the Depression, then lassoed by war, it was tough filling its 86 stories of office space. Raskob and Smith, both good businessmen who knew a busy building looked better than an empty one, and devout Catholics who wanted to be of service to their Church, offered free space to War Relief Services. Smith had been its treasurer in 1944.
The War Relief Services offices took up half of the 79th floor. On July 28, 1945, the Saturday contingent — about 20 of the 30 people who worked there — showed up. A top executive of the agency, Father Edward Swanstrom, stopped for his usual Saturday shave and haircut on his way in.
As they were arriving, a pilot was getting into his plane near Boston. Lt. Col. Bill Smith was a highly decorated war hero who had flown 500 hours of bombing missions. Back from his base in England, he had just met his namesake son who was born while he was overseas, but now he had to pick up his commander at the Newark airport and then fly to Sioux Falls, South Dakota, to prepare for deployment to the Pacific.
With him were his plane’s engineer, Bill Domitrovich, and a last-minute passenger, Albert Perna, given leave to visit his family in New York as they had just learned his brother had died in the Pacific. The weather was so bad they couldn’t get clearance to fly to Newark, only to LaGuardia. Smith still planned on picking up his commander at 10 a.m. in the B-25.
The War Relief Services employees began filtering into their office: PR man Paul Dearing, secretaries Kay O’Connor, Jeanne Sozzi, Anne Gerlach, Mary Louise Taylor, Theresa Scarpelli, Charlotte Degan, Ellen Lowe and Therese Fortier, project managers Joe Fountain and John Judge, social worker Mary Kedzierska, bookkeepers Maureen McGuire and Margaret Mullins, and personnel manager Anna Regan.
Receptionist Lucille Bath, substituting for a sick colleague, took a call from Father Swanstrom. He asked two program managers, Jack McCloskey and Ed Cummings, to come to the barber shop to discuss an upcoming trip to Europe. They grabbed their files and left.
Smith got the B-25 to LaGuardia and essentially hung around in the air, bothering the controllers until he got permission to head to Newark. The last thing the LaGuardia controller told him was that they couldn’t see the top of the Empire State Building, meaning the cloud cover might be lower than the 1,000 feet required for the noninstrument flight.
Hoping to still be on time, Smith headed west. In the fog and clouds, he lowered the landing gear, thinking he was nearing Newark, but he was amid the skyscrapers of Manhattan. His bomber barely missed several buildings. Smith put the plane in a desperate climb, but, with its tanks fully loaded for the flight to South Dakota, it hit the 79th floor of the Empire State Building at over 200 mph.
Judge, Sozzi and Dearing died instantly from the impact, along with the three men on the plane. An engine detached and flew through the entire floor, igniting fuel spewing from the wreckage. The plane’s oxygen tanks exploded. Seven others succumbed quickly in the fire: Taylor, Gerlach, Kedzierska, O’Connor, Bath, McGuire and Mullins.
But seven managed to make it into Father Swanstrom’s empty office opposite where the plane had entered. They were understandably near hysteria. A badly burned Fountain took charge, leading all in the Act of Contrition.
The others in the room thought they were sure to die. Therese Fortier took off the ring her boyfriend had given her and tossed it out the window, thinking someone could use it. The firefighters who, like their brethren on 9/11 who bravely walked up countless stairs to battle the blaze, did not see how anyone was alive in those offices. But one man who had seen the survivors hanging out a window made his way to the 79th floor and alerted the firemen. As Ana Regan sat on the floor reciting Hail Marys, the desperate group was rescued. Fountain succumbed three days later.
Every July 25, the names of the 11 staff members who died are remembered at Catholic Relief Services. It was a day of disaster and tragedy, but as with all the disasters we respond to around the world, this one came with heroism — Donald Molony, a Coast Guard hospital apprentice who was passing by and rushed into the building to rescue and treat the injured; with miracles — Betty Lou Oliver, the elevator operator who plunged 79 floors and lived; and with fate and faith — a haircut allowed Father Swanstrom to survive and become executive director of War Relief Services in 1947, serving in that position until 1967, as responsible as anyone for making CRS what it is today. CRS is still generously supported by the Raskob Foundation.
And one more thing: Firemen found the ring that Therese Fortier threw out the window and returned it to her. She married the man who had given it to her.
Michael Hill is senior writer at Catholic Relief Services’ headquarters in Baltimore. For more information about the Empire State Building crash and the Raskob Foundation, listen to the February podcast on CRS’ 75th Anniversary website: 75.crs.org/podcasts.