Friday, January 13, 2012

TFH 1/13: Plunged into Disaster, Six Shined

Thirty years ago today, Washington National Airport (today Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport) had been closed in the morning due to heavy snowfall. The airport had reopened around noon. At 1:45 PM, an Air Florida 737 arrived from Miami. That aircraft's attempt to return to Florida that afternoon would end in tragedy.

After a delay of almost two hours, Air Florida Flight 90 - carrying 74 passengers and 5 crew - prepared for departure amid falling temperatures and continuing snowfall. The aircraft had been deiced, but the deicing solution hadn't been mixed properly and wasn't as effective as it should have been. The two pilots, neither particularly experienced with flying in cold weather and snow/ice conditions, inexplicably did not turn the anti-icing systems of their two engines on as part of their takeoff checklist. The pilots also erred by keeping their aircraft very close to the plane taxiing in front of them, thinking incorrectly that the heat from that plane's engine exhaust would help keep theirs free of snow and ice, when the opposite was true.

At 3:59 PM, Flight 90 began its takeoff roll on Runway 01. First Officer Roger Pettit, the "pilot flying" for this leg of the journey, noticed that the 737's performance didn't match what his instruments were telling him. Regardless of his concern, the crew continued with the takeoff - icing conditions on the engines meant that they were producing 16.7% less pressure than they should have, while the instruments reported full power. The icing on the plane's wings denied it a substantial amount of lift. Flight 90 made it airborne - barely - but only reached about 350 feet in altitude before the pilots lost control.

At 4:01 PM, the 737 crashed into the 14th Street Bridge over the Potomac River. The forward section of the plane rapidly sunk, leaving just the tail area separated and afloat.

Four motorists on the bridge were killed by the impact. Of the 79 souls aboard the plane, 73 perished in the crash. Six aboard the plane survived the crash; five of those were ultimately saved. Two of the passengers, along with four people who engaged in the rescue, are the real subject of today's recounting of courage.

Flight Attendant Kelly Duncan, then 22 years old, was the youngest member of the Air Florida crew and the only crew member survivor. She was seated in the rear of the plane, and quickly found herself in the icy Potomac river with the other five survivors. Putting her passengers first, she assisted the other survivors as best she could as they clung to the fractured tail of the aircraft, including giving the only available life jacket to one of the injured passengers. She was recognized by the NTSB for her selfless act.

Roger Olian, a sheet metal working foreman at a Washington area hospital, was driving home and was atop the 14th Street Bridge when the plane struck. He heard a man yelling that a plane was in the water. Olian exited his truck, and courageously dove into the river in an attempt to assist the survivors. With ice clinging to his body, he came ashore looking for anything that could be used to assist the victims. Grabbing what little was available to him - some rope, battery jumper cables - he ignored the voices of other bystanders and reentered the freezing waters to try and save others. For his courage at extreme risk to himself, he was awarded the Gold Lifesaving Medal by the United States Coast Guard.

Lenny Skutnik, a US government office assistant in his late 20s, observed a passenger - Priscilla Tirado - struggling in the water as a helicopter (see below) tried to drop a life line to her. Without hesitation, he stripped off his coat and boots and swam 30 feet out into the river to assist her. He was successful in towing Ms. Tirado to shore, saving her life. Thirteen days after the disaster, he was recognized by President Reagan during the 1982 State of the Union Address. Like Roger Olian, Skutnik was also decorated by the Coast Guard with the Gold Lifesaving Medal.

Donald W. Usher and Melvin E. Windsor crewed the United States Park Police's helicopter Eagle 1. Usher (the pilot) and Windsor (a paramedic) were credited with saving four of the survivors by dropping lines to them from the air and assisting them to shore. At one point during the rescue, they were so low to the water that the landing skids went beneath the surface of the Potomac. Windsor also exited the helicopter onto the barely floating wreckage of the tail section to assist the survivors. They were both decorated with the US Department of the Interior's Valor Award and Silver Lifesaving Medals by the Coast Guard.

Arland Dean Williams, Jr., age 46, was a passenger. He didn't know any of his fellow survivors personally, but he unhesitatingly and with complete selflessness and courage put the lives of the others before his own. A life vest was dropped from Usher and Windsor's helicopter; he gave it to another. Then a flotation ball was dropped; that was given to another. He retrieved many of the lines from the helicopter - and passed them to others. He was the last remaining victim in the water when the tail section finally sank. Exhausted and succumbing to hypothermia, he was unable to save himself, was dragged under, and drowned. Time Magazine on January 25, 1982 - before his identity was known - wrote of his courage:
So the man in the water had his own natural powers. He could not make ice storms, or freeze the water until it froze the blood. But he could hand life over to a stranger, and that is a power of nature too. The man in the water pitted himself against an implacable, impersonal enemy; he fought it with charity; and he held it to a standoff. He was the best we can do.
It took some time to conclusively identify Williams as "the man in the water". On June 6, 1983 in an Oval Office ceremony, President Ronald Reagan and Secretary of Transportation Elizabeth Dole presented his parents, sister, and children with his Gold Lifesaving Medal from the Coast Guard.

Also in 1983, the District of Columbia renamed the 14th Street Bridge to the "Arland D. Williams Jr. Memorial Bridge." On this day, as well as all others, may those who use the bridge - and the rest of us too - remember the fantastic courage shown that day thirty years ago.

And to the families of all those lost aboard Flight 90, you will be in our prayers on this grim anniversary.

The Washington Post has retrospective coverage, as well as a reprise of the front page from the following day in 1982.

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