UPDATE: this from a New Yorker article:
Ask a vertical-transportation-industry professional to recall an episode of an elevator in free fall—the cab plummeting in the shaftway, frayed rope ends trailing in the dark—and he will say that he can think of only one. That would be the Empire State Building incident of 1945, in which a B-25 bomber pilot made a wrong turn in the fog and crashed into the seventy-ninth floor, snapping the hoist and safety cables of two elevators. Both of them plunged to the bottom of the shaft. One of them fell from the seventy-fifth floor with a woman aboard—an elevator operator. (The operator of the other one had stepped out for a cigarette.) By the time the car crashed into the buffer in the pit (a hydraulic truncheon designed to be a cushion of last resort), a thousand feet of cable had piled up beneath it, serving as a kind of spring. A pillow of air pressure, as the speeding car compressed the air in the shaft, may have helped ease the impact as well. Still, the landing was not soft. The car’s walls buckled, and steel debris tore up through the floor. It was the woman’s good fortune to be cowering in a corner when the car hit. She was severely injured but alive.FURTHER UPDATE: from the Empire State Building web site and Elevator World (the industry magazine of record*), we learn that the woman was called Betty Lou Oliver, and she was more desperately unlucky than the New Yorker states above, because she was injured by the plane crash, then put in an elevator by rescuers. Then the weakened cables snapped!
As the plane hit, Oliver, an elevator operator, was blown out of her post on the 80th floor and badly burned. After receiving first aid, she was put in another car to go down to an ambulance. As the elevator doors closed, rescue workers heard what sounded like a gunshot but what was, in fact, the snapping of elevator cables weakened by the crash. The car with Oliver inside, now at the 75th floor, plunged to the sub-basement, a fall of over 1,000 feet. Rescuers had to cut a hole in the car to get to the badly injured elevator operator.
Despite a harrowing experience, Oliver survived, due in large part to the elevator safety devices which served their function, though perhaps not as envisioned. The elevator car safety could not set because the governor cable had been severed by the plane's impact. Therefore, other factors contributed to slowing the elevator and 'cushioning' its fall. As the elevator fell, the compensating cables, hanging from beneath the car, piled up in the pit and acted as a coiled spring, slowing the elevator. Also, the hatchway was of a 'high-pressure' design, with minimum clearance around the car. In such a small space, the air was compressed under the falling elevator. With such a tight fit of the car in the hatchway, the trapped air created an air cushion in the lower portion of the shaft -- thereby further slowing the elevator car and allowing its occupant to survive.[*Accept no other substitute.]