On this day in 1982, a Boeing 737 crashes into the icy waters of the Potomac. Air Florida Flight 90 had stalled during takeoff, then plowed into Washington D.C.’s 14th Street Bridge before plunging into the river below.
It was a day of unnecessary tragedy—but also a day of astonishing heroism. Bystanders risked their lives for strangers. One passenger gave up his chance at survival, enabling others to live. For months, this individual was simply known as “the man in the water.”
He’d sacrificed his life, but no one even knew his name.
The root of that day’s troubles was the weather. A nasty winter storm persisted, forcing Washington National Airport to close for part of the afternoon. Meanwhile, the Air Florida flight sat at its gate, hoping for a departure window, however brief.
Everything was taking too long. The captain had the plane deiced, but then he ran into trouble backing out of the gate. By the time he taxied to a runway, other planes were waiting to depart. Too much time had passed since the deicing, but he never went back to be deiced again. He and his co-pilot also ignored anomalous readings during takeoff, missing an opportunity to abort when they should have.
Their decisions proved fatal.
The plane never gained sufficient speed or altitude. When it crashed, only six survivors would come to the surface, clinging to debris from the plane’s tail section.
It was mere minutes, really, but it must have felt like hours. Finally, a rescue helicopter arrived and dropped a line to one survivor, ferrying him across the ice to the shore. The helicopter pilot, Don Usher, was flying in impossible conditions, but he knew what he had to do. Back he went for another rescue. This time, the man who received the rescue line rejected it, passing it instead to Kelly Duncan, the only surviving flight attendant. She grabbed the line and was carried to safety.
Usher went back a third time, but the same man rejected the rescue line—again. The line instead went to passenger Joe Stiley, who tried to carry both himself and another passenger, Priscilla Tirado, across the ice. Stiley made it, but Tirado lost her grip and fell. She was flailing in the water and she seemed weak. For a minute, it seemed that she would drown.
Fortunately, a man by the name of Lenny Skutnik was watching nearby. He had no intention of letting anyone drown! He plunged into the freezing water, swimming straight toward Tirado. He saved her life.
In the meantime, the helicopter had gone back for a fifth survivor, Patricia Felch. She was too weak to grasp the rescue line. Usher hovered the helicopter so low that the skids went under water. His co-pilot reached over and grabbed Felch, leaning out to grab her despite the fact that he wasn’t wearing any kind of safety harness.
Five of six were safe. There was just one more trip to make. Where was the man who kept passing the rescue line to others? ‘‘We looked in the water, in the wreck, everywhere, but he was gone,’’ Usher later said. ‘‘That guy was amazing. All I can tell you is I’ve never seen that kind of guts.’’
The identity of this hero was confirmed many months later. Arland D. Williams Jr. would be posthumously awarded the Coast Guard’s Gold Lifesaving Medal for his bravery. Skutnik would also receive the Medal, as would Roger Olian, a Vietnam veteran who’d jumped in the water early in the rescue effort.
Too many people died that day. But thanks to a few brave heroes, five people would survive the unsurvivable.
Air Florida crash: Watch as the rescue unfolds (Washington Post; Jan. 12, 2012)
Ken Kaye, Air Florida disaster still chilling 27 years later (Sun-Sentinel; Jan. 10, 2009)
Kevin Ambrose, The 30 year anniversary of the crash of Air Florida Flight 90 (Wash. Post; Jan. 13, 2012)
Matt Schudel, Obituary: Gene Windsor, 74; aided in dramatic plane crash rescue (Wash. Post; Sept. 6, 2014)
National Law Enforcement Museum: Witness to History panel discussion (January 31, 2017)
NTSB Official Accident Report (a copy can be found HERE)
Ronald Reagan, Remarks on Awarding the United States Coast Guard’s Gold Lifesaving Medal Posthumously to Arland D. Williams, Jr. (June 6, 1983)
Timothy R. Smith, Air Florida survivors reflect on crash that changed their lives (Wash. Post; Jan. 12, 2012)