August/September 2002 | Volume 53, Issue 4
FORETASTE OF A HORROR TO COME
Saturday, July 28, 1945, dawned overcast and sultry in New York City. I’d missed my train from Grand Central Station to Bangor, Maine, where I was attending a summer camp for girls. A teenager alone, with time to kill until the next departure, I decided to do the one dring my father had refused me during my two-day visit: go to the top of the Empire State Building.
Looking out over the sooty windowsills of his fourth-floor Madison Avenue apartment, I marveled at what was then known as “the eighth wonder of the world.” It rose above Manhattan’s landscape like tomorrow itself. In the sunlight its windows sparkled like crystals, and at night like stars. “Daddy,” I pleaded, “please take me up there.”
“I don’t have time, honey.” He glanced at his new wife. “Carol?”
“Don’t you ask me to take her up there, Parker!” she snapped. “It’s not safe!”
She then recounted every sensational headline and scrap of hearsay since the 102-story building’s construction in 1930: WELDER FALLS TO HIS DEATH FROM 43RD FLOOR; MAN SURVIVES FALL DOWN ELEVATOR SHAFT—WILL NEVER WALK AGAIN . Chances were zero that I would ever stand at the top of the world’s tallest building—until I missed my train.
After storing my suitcase in a railroad-station locker, I hurried out onto the baking sidewalk and walked down to Thirty-fourth Street and Fifth Avenue, where the skyscraper stands. Daddy will never know, I thought, running my fingers along the ground-floor wall. My heart hammered with excitement, but I was hot. In a drugstore window across the street a poster featured a frosty ice-cream soda mounded with whipped cream. I’ll have one of those first, I decided, and glanced at my watch. It was nine-thirty.
Inside I sat down at the marble-topped counter and placed my order.
“What’s a young girl like you doing walking around all by herself in this city with all them soldiers and sailors on the loose?” asked the older woman sitting next to me.
“I missed my train.”
“Well, the war in Germany’s over. Didn’t your mother warn you that those boys haven’t seen a skirt in years? And yours is mighty short.”
Heat rushed to my face as I glanced at my bare knees. What could I say? I was six feet one. I weighed barely 104 pounds. Didn’t she realize that boys never looked at a girl like me?
“The boys won’t bother me,” I said at last. “Besides, I’m going to the top of the Empire State Building.”
“All by yourself? Did you know that it sways more than eight feet in the wind at the top, and sometimes, when the wind gets really bad, you have to hang on?”
My neighbor vacuumed bubbles from the bottom of her glass. “Well, dearie,” she sighed, “on second thought, you’re probably safer up there than down here on the ground.”
“Why, just last week I heard that a little boy threw a nickel from the observation tower, and it went straight through some poor man’s head. Killed him dead!”
Then, as I spooned whipped cream into my mouth, an explosion shattered the drugstore window. Boxes shot from the shelves, and bottles crashed to the black-and-white tile floor. Outside, people holding jackets or newspapers over their heads dashed for doorways. “We’re being bombed!” screamed a woman. “We’re being bombed!”
A second explosion, louder than the first, sent the man who’d made my soda vaulting over the counter. He pushed his way outside, then turned around and yelled, “Jesus! An airplane hit the Empire State Building!”
I slid from my stool and peered up through the broken window at the Empire State. Brilliant orange flames and black smoke billowed from the high windows into the heavy fog above. In moments the top of the building couldn’t be seen at all.
A woman who seemed to speak only Italian guided a man in through the drugstore doorway. He held a blood-soaked handkerchief over his eye.
“Glass,” he murmured as the pharmacist ran to help him. “It was a B-25 bomber,” he said. “I saw the whole thing. Poor devil was in trouble. Engine maybe? The fog. … He tried to turn. …”
Distant sirens whined as people streamed from the building, holding hands, supporting one another. Some were crying. Police cars, fire engines, and ambulances drove up onto the sidewalks.
A young man in a uniform ran into the drugstore. He was short—under five feet—and wore a Coast Guard patch on his sleeve. “I’m a hospital apprentice,” he said. “A couple of elevators fell. People are trapped—hurt real bad. I need morphine, a tourniquet, bandages—”
The pharmacist filled a brown paper bag while customers crowded around asking, “Can I help?”
“It’s awful,” the coast guardsman said. “The firemen let me go into the shaft because I was the only one small enough to fit through the cut. Those people fell 70 floors.”
My teeth were chattering now.
But for a strawberry soda, that could have been me. People kept coming into the drugstore. Some were crying. Two men were comforting a young mother who had broken her wrist. Her little boy clung to her legs. A woman brought them paper cups of water. Others helped pick up boxes of medicine and swept up glass. Later I learned that the coast guardsman, who was 17 years old, made more than 30 trips up and down stairwells, doctoring the injured.
Later I read that 14 died because of the crash, one of them a man blown out of a seventy-fifth floor window. Twenty-five were injured or horribly burned by the torrents of flaming gasoline that cascaded down stairwells and rolled into hallways. Wanting to leave but afraid to go alone, I sat at the counter and held the little boy on my lap while the pharmacist put a splint on his mother’s wrist.
I grew up a lot between trains. I have never been to the top of the Empire State Building; I am uncomfortable in elevators and nervous when I fly. But I learned that deep down inside, the American people are all alike. If someone needs help, we reach out.