The Empire State Building
This iconic landmark is one of the most recognized features of the New York City skyline, as well as one of the most memorable settings in cinematic history for 1933's King Kong. Construction on the building began on March 17, 1930 at the site of the former Waldorf-Astoria Hotel and quickly grew at the rate of four stories per week. Construction was completed in 18 months, which was one month early and five million dollars under budget. It stands at 102 stories tall and slightly over 1,453 feet high, including the pinnacle. Its official opening occurred on May 1, 1931 when President Herbert Hoover turned on the lights from his office in Washington D.C.
At the time that the Empire State Building was being built, two other buildings were constructed in New York City in a race to be the tallest skyscraper in the world. 40 Wall Street (now the Trump Building) grabbed the title when it was completed in 1930 at the height of 927 feet. It would be quickly surpassed when the Chrysler Building opened the same year at the height of 1,046 feet. However, even its reign was short-lived at the completion of the Empire State Building, which would remain the tallest skyscraper in the world for 41 years when the World Trade Center would be completed in 1972. Following the destruction of the World Trade Center in the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001; the Empire State Building would once again become the largest building in New York City and the second-tallest building in the United States.
Deaths and Ghosts
Though the industry estimate for construction fatalities on skyscrapers at the time was one death per floor, there were only five to 14 fatalities during the construction of the Empire State Building depending on the source. Despite this, guidebooks and guided tours still cite a far higher casualty count, typically using the industry estimates of one death per floor or 102 in the case of this building.
When the building soon took the mantle of the "tallest building in the world," it attracted more than a few who looked at it as the optimal place to take their own lives. In fact, the first suicide at the Empire State Building occurred during its construction when a worker threw himself down an elevator shaft after receiving the proverbial pink slip. The next death occurred 6 to 18 months (again depending on the source) after the building's opening when a man in his early-thirties from Queens jumped from the uppermost observatory, ultimately coming to a rest on the roof of the 86th floor.
The 86th floor outdoor observatory was the focal point of most attempts with 16 people accomplishing the feat between 1932 and 1947. The owners did nothing to alleviate the problem until January 1947 when one of the suicide jumpers struck a pedestrian on the street below and injured her. The owners publicly proclaimed that a steel fence would be erected on the observation deck and then hired more guards to fend off any last-minute attempts. They were kept busy in early 1947, but ultimately unsuccessful when a 22-year-old man jumped on July 14. Between the dates of October 20 and November 9, the guards were able to stop five more people from making the jump and on December 14, 1947 the wire mesh fence with incurving steel spikes was finally erected. Its presence would not be a complete deterrent to more efforts, with some succeeding in scaling the fence, but most attempts have now switched to other floors. To date, over thirty people have jumped to their deaths from the Empire State Building.
Unfortunately, the story does not appear to end there for those that succeeded in taking their own lives from the building. To this day, visitors to the observatory have reported seeing someone rushing the fence, only to pass right through it as if it weren't there and disappearing. There are stories that some witnesses even encounter a woman dressed in a 1940s wardrobe and wearing red lipstick in the woman's bathroom or in the observatory area that has been crying. When they ask her if she is okay, she tells them that her lover had died in Germany during the war. She is usually later sighted passing through the fence and jumping to her death. Others have reported capturing spirit-like anomalies or other paranormal phenomenon from their photographs they took on the observatory level.
The Plane Crash of 1945
Near the end of World War II, the building was the setting of another tragedy when a B-25 bomber crashed into the north side of the 79th floor on July 28, 1945. The plane was headed south to Newark, New Jersey and was warned about a thick fog that had swallowed up the city. The flight controller at what is now LaGuardia Airport warned the pilot, Lieutenant Colonel Bill Smith, of the conditions by saying, "We're unable to see the top of the Empire State. Suggest you land here." Smith continued however and found the plane enveloped in the fog. Despite regulations that required planes to maintain a 2,000 feet altitude over the city, Smith descended the plane to 1,000 feet to get his bearings, but ultimately found he had descended into the heart of the city and was forced to bank the plane to avoid hitting the skyscrapers. His last maneuver put him in direct line with the tall skyscraper and despite Smith's efforts to pull up, the plane crashed into the building at an estimated 200 miles per hour.
Fourteen people were killed in the crash, including the three-member crew of the bomber and 11 office workers in the National Catholic Welfare Council on the 79th floor. There were an estimated 60 people on the observation deck at the time of the impact and, despite being tossed about by the force of the crash they were quickly led down the 86 flights of stairs to safety.
However, the most amazing tale of survival came in the form of elevator operator, Betty Lou Oliver. Oliver had been in the elevator on the 80th floor at the time of the crash when the ensuing fireball threw her from the car with severe burns. She was given first aid for her burns and then placed in a second elevator that rescuers believed was undamaged. However, after the doors closed the rescuers heard the shot of the cables snapping and Oliver's screams as the elevator plunged 1000 feet to the basement below. Hydraulic safety devices were in place at the time that immediately went to work, the frayed cables also tangled beneath the car, and trapped air all ultimately managed to slow the descent some. However, crews feared the worst when they had to use their axes to break into the mangled wreckage, but were shocked to find Oliver hurt but alive. When she saw the rescuers, she cried out, "Thank God, the Navy's here! I'll be OK now."
Fortunately, the crash occurred on a Saturday and not a weekday, so the building was not fully occupied at the time or the casualties may have been much worse. However, given that the event happened towards the end of World War II, fear spread throughout New York City that the city was being bombed. Aside from the fourteen casualties, there were 26 injuries and over one million dollars of damage.
NYC's Bermuda Triangle?
In a report published in January 2008, the New York Daily News places the Empire State Building at the center of a bizarre phenomenon. Reportedly 10-15 cars and trucks a day are disabled within a five-block radius of the building. This activity has been dubbed the "Empire State Building Effect" or the "Automotive Bermuda Triangle." The vehicles will inexplicably stall and not turn back over or drivers will find their remote keyless entries disabled and are unable to lock or unlock their car.
For their part, the owners of the Empire State Building deny the building has anything to do with reports, but some experts in the area believe there is a link between the automobiles's computer system and the large radio/television antenna on the top of the building. Following the destruction of the twin towers on 9/11, the building once again became the central transmission point for commercial broadcasts; serving around 13 television stations and 19 FM stations. Tow truck drivers that respond to assist the disabled vehicles told the paper that they "...pull the car four or five blocks to the west or east and the car starts right up."
Hollywood had a hand in making the Empire State Building the icon it is today by creating one of the most enduring images of King Kong clinging to the top. The film was released just two years after the building officially opened, but used the building for the film's climax when the giant ape climbs to the top with Fay Wray in hand. There, Kong attempts to fight off a swarm of attacking airplanes but it ultimately is injured and falls to his death, leading to the film's memorable phrase: "It was beauty killed the beast."
King Kong premiered on March 2, 1933 in New York City and took in over $90,000 the first weekend and shattered attendance records to that date. As it would turn out, the film and the city would form a lasting bond. The television premiere of King Kong also occurred in the city and channel WOR-TV would play the film seventeen times over a one-week period, drawing in another record-breaking 80 percent of all television viewers watching the film at least once during that run.
An enduring bond would form between the film and the Empire State Building as well. To celebrate the film's 50th Anniversary in 1983, a large, inflatable King Kong was placed at the top of the building, though mice issues and the constant supply of air needed kept the balloon from ever being fully inflated. Star of the film Fay Wray was quoted as saying, "Every time I'm in New York I say a little prayer when passing the Empire State Building. A good friend of mine died up there." Two days after Wray's passing on August 8, 2004, the lights on the Empire State Building were dimmed for fifteen minutes in tribute of her memory.
The building would again be utilized for Peter Jackson's 2005 remake of King Kong, this time with actress Naomi Watts taking the ride up the side of the building with Kong. The filmmakers behind the 1976 remake decided to relocate the climatic scene over to the World Trade Center instead, prompting the employees working in the Empire State Building to take to the 102nd floor and picket while wearing gorilla suits in protest.
The Empire State Building has been featured in countless films over the years, but only played a role in a few horror films. Aside from King Kong, the 1957 film The Giant Claw also featured the building in its climax. In this case though, the giant bird-like creature completely destroys the building before moving on to the United Nations. Its fictional destruction also played out in the 1996 film, Independence Day, which made the Empire State Building ground zero for the alien attack in New York City.
The Empire State Building Today
The 86th floor observatory at the Empire State Building continues to be one of the most popular tourist destinations in New York City. An estimated 110 million people have ventured to the top to enjoy the impressive 360-degree view of the city. In addition, tourists can also choose from restaurants, stores, a virtual-reality movie theater, and even view items from Fay Wray's private collection of photographs, posters and other King Kong memorabilia in a permanent display in the lobby's showcase windows.
PLEASE NOTE: Suicide is not at a trivial matter. If you or someone you know is contemplating suicide, we urge you to reach out for help. You can call 911 or your local emergency services number, and/or talk to family, friends, doctor, your minister, or spiritual guider. Similarly, you can contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 (TALK). They are open 24 hours a day, seven days a week and all calls are free and confidential. Life is always the better option.