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30-years-ago today, twin disasters in DC. Air Florida Flight 90 crashes into the Potomac River followed by the first fatal Metro train accident. DCFD radio traffic, lessons learned & more.

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DCFD radio traffic from Air Florida Flight 90 and Metrorail crashes- Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4

Cockpit voice recorder audio from Air Florida Flight 90

Seconds From Disaster

Washington Post coverage of the anniversary

More on media coverage of the events from DCRTV's Dave Hughes

January 13, 1982 Pre-Internet Citizen Journalism

At 4:01 PM on January 13, 1982 Air Florida Flight 90 crashed into the icy Potomac River during a Washington snow storm. Seventy-eight people, including four who were in their vehicles on the inbound 14th Street Bridge, died in the accident. Within a half-hour of the crash into the Potomac, the area’s subway system, Metro, suffered its first fatal accident. It happened just north of the 14th street bridge in a tunnel south of the Federal Triangle station. Three people were killed and 25 were injured.

The video above is a compilation of coverage from Channel 9 in Washington. In it you will see some of the video shot by my friend Bruce Bookholtz who was on the 14th Street Bridge as five survivors were plucked from the icy Potomac by the US Park Police Eagle helicopter crew of Donald Usher and Gene Windsor. Bookholtz and reporter John Goldsmith were at nearby National Airport just prior to the crash and captured a shot of Flight 90 before take off as part of their coverage of the snow storm.

The failure of the plane to be properly deiced, along with a cockpit crew inexperienced in winter weather operations contributed to the accident, according to the NTSB. The most significant factor leading directly to the crash was the failure of the crew to use the engine anti-ice system during ground operation and takeoff. This allowed the engine pressure ratio (EPR) thrust indicators to provide false high readings. Because of it, the crew did not provide enough power to keep the Boeing 737-200 airborne and it came down just 30 seconds after leaving the National Airport runway.

The interaction of the crew and the failure of the pilot to heed warnings of the co-pilot have long been cited in the area of crew resource management for pilots and in other disciplines, including the fire service.

The Air Florida and Metro crashes were important to the fire service, particularly in the Washington, DC area, for another reason. There was little cooperation or coordination that day across jurisdictional lines. On the scene, working somewhat independently were DCFD, the Arlington County Fire Department, the National Airport Fire Department along with other resources. There was not a strong regional plan on how such disasters were to be handled, which brought much criticism.

Among the loudest critics was Channel 9 Editorial Director Rich Adams. Rich, who died in 1996, was also a columnist for Firehouse Magazine and member of the Bethesda-Chevy Chase Rescue Squad. Rich did many on-air editorials prodding local fire service leaders to come up with better regional planning in the days and months that followed the twin disasters. Since the mid 1970s the Northern Virginia fire departments were working daily with an automatic aid policy. But that stopped at the Virginia state line. I urge you to listen to some of Rich's editorials related to the Air Florida and Metro incidents (above). Rich was an important voice in fire and EMS in the Nation's Capital and around the country.

Because of Rich and some progressive fire service leaders, the lessons learned from January 13, 1982, allowed for a much better response almost two decades later when the largest and longest DC area fire and EMS operation took place just south of the 14th Street Bridge. That, of course, was at the Pentagon on September 11, 2001.

Another friend, Chester Panzer, then a videographer at Channel 7 and now at Channel 4, got the award-winning close-up video of the rescues. His account is above.

Some other notes from January 13, 1982

One story that wasn’t publicly known until I reported it on the 20th anniversary in 2002, is that the actions of another US Park Police pilot possibly saved the day. In 1982, US Park Police did not supply a snow plow for the hanger in Anacostia Park. Pilot Ron Galey took the call about the crash. As Usher and Windsor got the chopper ready. Galey jumped into his own snow plow equipped pickup truck and cleared a path for the helicopter’s take off. Without that effort, the helicopter may have arrived too late for the rescues.

Just short of 20-years later, Galey also took the call from National Airport’s tower for the notification that a jet had slammed into the Pentagon on September 11, 2001.

There were a number of heroes that day. This includes Arland Williams, believed to be the sixth passenger who survived the initial impact. The other survivors say Williams repeatedly passed the life ring from the helicopter to his fellow survivors. Williams drowned by the time the helicopter came back for him. The inbound 14th Street span is now named for Arland Williams.

The other story from that day that has always touched me is of Roger Olian. Olian was then a sheet metal worker on his way home from his job at St. Elizabeth’s Hospital. Olian saw the survivors flailing in the frigid waters before any rescuers arrived. Feeling he had to do something, Olian jumped in and swam toward the middle of the river. While he didn’t save anyone, the survivors all cited Olian’s act as giving them hope they soon would be rescued.

Olian’s actions were somewhat overshadowed by Lenny Skutnik who also jumped into the river. Skutnik grabbed survivor Priscilla Tirado who had been brought close to the shore by the helicopter, but couldn’t make it in on her own. Skutnik was recognized later that month during President Ronald Reagan’s State of the Union address. It began the tradition of honoring heroes during the event.

Click here for a detailed article on the day's heroes.

January 13, 1982 was more than three years before I started my television career. In fact, I was unemployed, having been fired as a traffic reporter for KIX-106 because I was concerned about a safety issue with the airplane we were using. But that day turned out to be my first day on the job at WTOP Radio where my wife Hillary Howard now works. If you care, that story of my live audition and hiring is in this month's Washingtonian Magazine, in an article by Cindy Rich titled Pre-Internet Citizen Journalism. You can click here to read it.

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  • Pingback: Morning Lineup – January 13 | Firegeezer()

  • http://seattlesocialservices.blogspot.com/ Dana Libby

     
    That was a nearly unbelievable day.  I was working in the Baileys Crossroads area (with Fairfax County Police) on that day.  The combination of the heavy wet snow, jammed commuter traffic and then these two incidents. 
    This was still in an era when the County was actually paying vehicle vendors to delete AM/FM radios from the police vehicles prior to delivery, so the only news received was either through the police network (this was pre-CAD mobile terminals) or a personal broadcast radio in your briefcase. . . cell phones. . . nobody could afford those!. 
    Given the wide range of communications methods available to fire, ems and law enforcement today, it is hard to believe that a time existed when communication was so limited and interoperability between agencies was so primitive.  The public safety officers, firefighters and medics are better equipped to serve neighbors across jurisdicional boundaries because of the advocacy of folks like Rich Adams and the hard work of countless others working behind the scenes to build the (still imperfect) communications network of today. 
    (ps – I wonder where Lenny Skutnik is today. . . at the time of the crash, I think he worked at the Government Printing Office and lived in Lorton)

    • dave statter

      Dana.

      I believe Channel 9 got a hold of Lenny Skutnik on the 25th anniversary (or it might have been a sidebar story to the Hudson crash). He was still in the area but he didn’t want to talk. Roger Olian was available.

      Good observations.

      Statter

  • Anonymous

    That day was a particular difficult challenge for any Public Safety Agency to manage and provide service to save Lives. Thweather as we all know was very much a part of the scene senario. Bitter Cold weather, Snow continuing to fall, and on the ground early dismissal of federal Government Workers. DC Fire and EMS handled this day with the very best of their skills and knowledge. Both Air Florida 90 and metro Incidents were handled with DCFire and EMS Professionalism pursued to the limits. As it occurred that day earlier during the night there was a 3rd Alarm Building Fire 13th Street and Upshur Street NW. This occurrance was not the first of a double Disaster that Dc Fire and EMS had Managed. In 1953 the Fire and Explosion at Standard Tire and Battery 10th and H Streets NE happened. The DCFD Fire Chief  Late Millard H. Sutton was critically wounded in the explosion. Good Lord rest his Soul. He lived to work another day. That same day a Train jumped Track and crashed inside the people area of Union Station. "Black Thursday" The History and the overall Management of these incidents proved the DCFD was and still is capable of handling the large scale Disasters. All four of these Incidents have proven throughout the recorded history of DC Fire and EMS the Professional Skills and ability instilled into the men and women who do this job everyday. Congratulations to all DC Fire and EMS Professionals. Over the years there have been unlimited number of good decent hard working DC Fire and EMS people who performed at the highest level of measured Standards.
    I Salute  each and everyone of you

  • Joe

    Mr. Skutnick worked for the Congressional Budget Office. He retired in June 2010.

  • Fire21

    I had spent time in the Air Force in the Washington, DC area in the early 70s.  I was long gone from there when these tragedies happened, but was still familiar with the area.  As so many of us do when these horrible events are covered on TV, I sat in front of my TV and couldn't tear myself away.  Something in our hearts wants to get us there and help in some way.  My heart still aches, seeing those people struggle to survive, and it swells with pride at the actions of the heros who risked a lot to save a lot.  May God bless everyone involved in those incidents.
     
     

  • Sharppointy1

    Hey Dave, cool story in the Washingtonian.  That must have been an amazing day for you.  I vidily remember watching the videos clear out here in the hinterlands and being horrified/fascinated by what I was seeing.  
    Good job,my man!

  • CHAOS

    I said it when I first saw the video, and it still stands up after all these years.  That was some damn impressive flyboy stuff going on there.  Very unfavorable weather, including what had to be some interesting wind action down by water level with the bridges nearby, the shear scale of the event and what was going on around them, fading light conditions, a very unbalanced bird with people hanging out and from one side, and dipping his skids under the surface of the water into the current with ice floes & all kinds of other debris in the mix.  I've seen some good flying skill demonstrations over the years, but nothing better than that.

  • http://firegeezer,com Mike Ward

    I want to echo Dana's observation. We loaded up a Suburban at the Academy with ems gear and responded to the crash.  Very little information on the fire radio. Missed all of Captain Dan's excellent reporting from WMAL's traffic helicopter

  • Anonymous

    Dave you've got to upload the radio transmissions with then the DCFD Fire Chief Norman Richardson and Fire Dispatcher Steve Souder. Even though that was a tragic day, it's something that I will never forget.

  • Dallas

    So Dave, did you stiff them on the phone bill for the hotel room? ;-)  Back in those days you couldn't call across the street without them charging you something, and sometimes even a local call go metered by the minute after a few minutes…
    PS – I agree with Anonymous above; if you have access to the voice traffic from that day it would be well worth posting.  I have spoken to Steve Souder about his experiences that day and I suspect that everyone here would enjoy listening to him trying to manage things during one of the worst days the DC region has ever experienced.

  • J Gordon Routley

    The radio traffic from DCFD is classic. My radio role model Steve Souder is so in control with his perfect radio voice … if Dave had those skills he could have made it as a dispatcher instead of having to go find a job in TV land.  And then we have Rich Adams putting everything in perfect prespective . Them was the good old days!
    You have to find the radio traffic with THE FIRE CHIEF. That's a classic that should be in the Hertiage Center.

    • dave statter

      Heard from Steve this morning. I belive I have the whole thing somewhere. Probably on cassette. I did not listen to any of what I linked to so I assume it is not there. I also had Arlington’s audio posted a couple of years ago when I was at Channel 9 but it no longer exists on their server.

  • http://firegeezer,com Mike Ward

    Live Leak has a four-part posting of the fire audio, starts here:
    http://www.liveleak.com/view?i=df0_1200371936

  • DinoYears

     

    yawn ….
     
    What ya done for me lately…

     

  • Anonymous

    The Fire Chief has been found. On part 3 starts about 1:30. The "how do I get their" is on part 4 at 2:07. The rest of the much-to-say-about-nothing-transmisson is not there.
    Steve If you read this, you are also my role model.  Things would not have gone any better without him and the rest of the dedicated staff working that day. Hear the LRB!!!!
    Dave couldn't make it as a dispatcher Gordon because he kept on breaking stuff in Hyattsville. Just ask him about it!……xoxo

    • dave statter

      Clearly someone in the know about what went on at 5012.

  • http://fairfaxcounty.gov/911 Steve Souder

    Dave and all others:
    Thanks to each of you that have commented.  Once again, it was my good fortune to have been "wearing the headset" on 1-13-82.  Beginning with my first day "on the radio" on April 4, 1968 when, in the aftermath of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., rioter set fires swept DC…..to when Air Florida Flight 90 crashed and beyond; I worked then, as I'm blessed to still do; whether in DC, Arlington County, Montgomery County or Fairfax County….with the finest people in our profession. 
    When you read Dave's posts it helps remind us of how much history we've lived through and help make together.
    Steve Souder…… steve.souder@fairfaxcounty.gov & stevesouder@comcast.net
     
     
     
     
     
     

  • No.1 Statter Fan from Virginia

    I was just a small child when this happened, it was all over the CBS news that afternoon and I remember we were home from school early because of the weather in Danville, Virginia. My parents had been trying to get me to learn how to swim. Some footage was shown of the civilians, and also some firemen, who jumped in to assist some of those survivors. My ma and dad said "boy, if you are going to be a fireman, you gotta learn how to swim, see for yourself." It was not too long after that that I gladly learned how to swim, and I proudly did become a fireman (now a Captain). All those brave civilians, firefighters, police officers, EMS, dispatchers, who helped that day are HEROS. Gosh I respect you all so much. It was a terriable thing that happened, but you showed the very best of hummanity. You are role models for my sons and I have talked to them about this story many times despite their young age. Thinking of that &*^% that happened in Tennessee with the FD not putting out the fires a while back, on this terriable day you had people coming from all over to help their fellow man; it did not matter if you were from the District, Virginia, or Maryland, it did not matter where you were from you pulled together to get the job done. Once again, Statter has provided excellent coverage on an historical event.

  • Texas Gordo

    Dave,
    Thank you for posting this retrospective. The lessons the aviation industry alone took away from this tragedy still echo today. A wonderful piece of reporting.
     

  • Jim Miller

    I remember this well. The same day I was promoted to Captain.

  • ukfbbuff

     Dave, Thanks for the look back.
    All I could do was watch the events as they were shown on ABC here on the West Coast. But I do remeber our weather in the SF Bay Area at the time was cloudy and rainy. Not as severe as it was at the crash site, but winter.