AIR FLORIDA CRASH, METRO DERAILMENT SHUT DOWN DC
On January 13, 1982, the Washington, D.C. area was hit with a winter storm dropping 4-8 inches of snow across the area. Washington’s National Airport was close for part of the morning but reopened at noon.
Air Florida Hits 14th Street Bridge
At about 3:10, Air Florida Flight 90 bound for Tampa and then Ft. Lauderdale, entered the taxi line for takeoff. It would wait for 49 minutes in freezing temperatures with snow continuing to fall. The pilot decided not to return to the gate for additional de-icing and, inexplicably had not activated the engine anti-ice system and proceeded to take off at 3:59 p.m. The plane only reached an altitude of 352 feet before it began losing altitude and crashed into the 14th Street Bridge after only about 30 seconds in the air. The plane hit six cars and a truck on the bridge and plunged into the Potomac – 74 people were killed in the crash plus another 4 killed by impact on the bridge.
At 4:30, a Washington Metrorail train derailed near the Blue/Orange Line’s Federal Triangle Station killing 3 and injuring 25. It was the first fatal accident in Metro’s history. See WUSA-9 Report.
In a matter of minutes, Washington’s busiest airport, busiest expressway, subway line and bridge were all shut down.
A Heroic Rescue
Several passengers managed to survive the impact and now fought for their lives in the icy Potomac.
Roger Olian, a sheetmetal foreman at St. Elizabeths, a Washington psychiatric hospital, was on his way home across the 14th Street Bridge in his truck when he heard a man yelling that there was an aircraft in the water. He was the first to jump into the water to attempt to reach the survivors. At the same time, several military personnel from the Pentagon – Steve Raynes, Aldo De La Cruz and Steve Bell – ran down to the water’s edge to help Olian.
He only traveled a few yards and came back, ice sticking to his body. We asked him to not try again, but he insisted. Someone grabbed some short rope and battery cables and he went out again, maybe only going 30 feet. We pulled him back. Someone had backed up their jeep and we picked him up and put him in there. All anyone could do was tell the survivors was to hold on not to give up hope. There were a few pieces of the plane on shore that were smoldering and you could hear the screams of the survivors. More people arrived near the shore from the bridge but nobody could do anything. The ice was broken up and there was no way to walk out there. It was so eerie, an entire plane vanished except for a tail section, the survivors and a few pieces of plane debris. The smell of jet fuel was everywhere and you could smell it on your clothes. The snow on the banks was easily two feet high and your legs and feet would fall deep into it every time you moved from the water.
. . . . At approximately 4:20 p.m. EST, Eagle 1, a United States Park Police Bell 206L-1 Long Ranger helicopter (registry number N22PP) based at the “Eagles Nest” at Anacostia Park in Washington, and manned by pilot Donald W. Usher and paramedic Melvin E. Windsor, arrived and began attempting to airlift the survivors to shore. At great risk to themselves, the crew worked close to the water’s surface, at one time coming so close to the ice-clogged river that the helicopter’s skids went beneath the surface of the water.
The helicopter crew lowered a line to survivors to tow them to shore. First to receive the line was Bert Hamilton, who was treading water about ten feet from the plane’s floating tail. The pilot pulled him across the ice to shore while avoiding the sides of the bridge. By then some fire/rescue personnel had arrived to join the military personnel and civilians who pulled Hamilton (and the next/last 3 survivors) from the water’s edge up to waiting ambulances. The helicopter returned to the aircraft’s tail, and this time Arland D. Williams Jr. (sometimes referred to as “the sixth passenger”) caught the line. Williams, not able to unstrap himself from the wreckage, passed the line to flight attendant Kelly Duncan, who was towed to shore. On its third trip back to the wreckage, the helicopter lowered two lifelines, fearing that the remaining survivors had only a few minutes before succumbing to hypothermia. Williams, still strapped into the wreckage, passed one line to Joe Stiley, who was holding on to a panic-stricken and blinded (from jet fuel) Priscilla Tirado, who had lost her husband and baby. Stiley’s co-worker, Nikki Felch, took the second line. As the helicopter pulled the three through the water and blocks of ice toward shore, both Tirado and Felch lost their grip and fell back into the water.
Priscilla Tirado was too weak to grab the line when the helicopter returned to her. A watching bystander, Congressional Budget Office assistant Lenny Skutnik, stripped off his coat and boots, and in short sleeves, dove into the icy water and swam out to successfully pull her to shore. The helicopter then proceeded to where Felch had fallen, and paramedic Gene Windsor stepped out onto the helicopter skid and grabbed her by the clothing to lift her onto the skid with him, bringing her to shore. When the helicopter crew returned for Williams, the wreckage he was strapped into had rolled slightly, submerging him—according to the coroner, Williams was the only passenger to die by drowning. His body and those of the other occupants were later recovered.
Honor and Dishonor
The “sixth passenger,” who had survived the crash and had repeatedly given up the rescue lines to other survivors before drowning, was later identified as 46-year-old bank examiner Arland D. Williams Jr. The repaired span of the 14th Street Bridge complex over the Potomac River at the crash site, which had been named the Rochambeau Bridge, was renamed the “Arland D. Williams Jr. Memorial Bridge” in his honor. The Citadel in South Carolina, from which he graduated in 1957, has several memorials to him. In 2003, the newArland D. Williams Jr. Elementary School was dedicated in his hometown of Mattoon in Coles County, Illinois.
Civilians Roger Olian and Lenny Skutnik received the Coast Guard’s Gold Lifesaving Medal. Arland D. Williams Jr. also received the award posthumously. Skutnik was introduced to the joint session of the U.S. Congress during President Ronald Reagan’s State of the Union speech later that month.
The Coast Guard awarded a Silver Lifesaving Medal to two crewmen of the U.S. Park Police helicopter Eagle 1. As the U.S. Park Police is part of the United States Department of the Interior, pilot Donald W. Usher and paramedic Melvin E. Windsor also received the Interior Department’s Valor Award, presented in a special ceremony soon after the accident bySecretary of the Interior James G. Watt.
Roger Olian, Lenny Skutnik, Donald Usher and Melvin Windsor each received the Carnegie Hero Fund Medal. Kelly Duncan, the only surviving flight attendant, was recognized in the NTSB accident report for her “unselfish act” of giving the only life vest she could find to a passenger,
. . . and then there was Howard Stern, who was at WWDC 101 at that time.
[Stern] pretended to call Air Florida reservations the next day while on the air and asked how much a one-way fare from National Airport to the 14th Street Bridge was. He used his typical radio bit of making his voice sound like it was over the phone and pretended to ask Air Florida the fare question. It was done during the news with Robin Quivers. It contributed to his being fired six months later, paving the way for The Greaseman to catapult his career in the DC radio market, while Howard Stern moved on to the larger New York City market and eventually became nationally syndicated.
This may be an embellished account, since the show audio is of something less obvious.
Remembering the Day
Classes were starting for my second semester at The American University in Washington, D.C. that day. All of us knew people flying that day and the crash put us all on pins and needles. The snow, metro shut down and gridlock also meant that I would end up eating my tickets to see “The Kinks” at the Capital Centre that night. A tiny tragedy at best to punctuate a grim and tragic day.