Most of you probably don’t remember this, but 70 years ago today, a plane crashed into the Empire State Building. Here’s what happened:
It was the waning days of World War II, and a B-25 bomber was flying a routine mission ferrying servicemen from Massachusetts to New York City's LaGuardia Airport. The day was foggy. Capt. William F. Smith, who had led some of the most dangerous missions in WWII in Europe, was the pilot.
When Smith arrived in the New York area, the weather was getting worse. He called LaGuardia and requested a clearance to land. With nearly zero visibility, the tower suggested that Smith not land.
"Smith said, 'Thank you very much' and signed off," says Arthur Weingarten, who wrote The Sky Is Falling, about what happened that day. "He ignored it … So he started to make a little bit of a turn that brought him over midtown Manhattan, and as he straightened out, the clouds broke up enough for him to realize he was flying among skyscrapers."
The bomber crashed into the Empire State Building, the tallest building in the world at the time. The collision killed Smith, two others on the plane and 11 people who worked inside the building.
Actually, all 11 were “workers from War Relief Services department of the National Catholic Welfare Conference,” into whose offices the plane crashed. It’s a very sad story and certainly no cause for celebration – except here’s what happened next:
Eight months after the crash, the U.S. government offered money to families of the victims. Some accepted, but others initiated a lawsuit that resulted in landmark legislation. The Federal Tort Claims Act of 1946, for the first time, gave American citizens the right to sue the federal government.
Before this happened, the doctrine of “sovereign immunity” ensured that the government had no accountability for any harm federal employees caused people. Even Abraham Lincoln complained about it, saying, "It is as much the duty of government to render prompt justice against itself in favor of citizens as it is to administer the same between private citizens."