Flight medic Gene Windsor on the skid with Pilot Donald Usher guiding the US Park Police helicopter, as the crew plucks 5 survivors from the icy Potomac River. Watch my 1992 story on the 10th anniversary of the crash of Air Florida Flight 90.
While the circumstances are very different, a lot of people in Washington were reminded yesterday of the crash of Air Florida Flight 90 into the icy Potomac River. Tuesday was the 27th anniversary of that tragedy. Seventy-eight people, including four who were in their vehicles on the inbound 14th Street Bridge, died in that accident in the middle of a snow storm at 4:01 PM on January 13, 1982.
While the crash into the Hudson was a ditching of a commercial jet by a skilled crew after an apparent catastrophic engine failure (possibly due to a bird strike), the Potomac crash was blamed on the actions of the crew. Among the most significant findings by the NTSB were that the Flight 90 pilot and co-pilot failed to have the anti-icing system turned on prior to take off. This resulted in a sensor icing over and in turn providing high false thrust indicator readings. The jet took off with inadequate power to stay airborne. It crashed just north of National Airport.
This incident helped push the idea of crew resource management in cockpits. The concept and how it relates to the fire service was alluded to today in Chief Billy Goldfeder’s posting on The Secret List.
Five people were plucked from the icy Potomac by the US Park Police Eagle helicopter crew of Donald Usher and Gene Windsor. The video above, from a story I did for Channel 9 in 1992, was shot by photographer Bruce Bookholtz. My friend Bruce is retiring at the end of this week. Bruce also had been at National Airport before the crash doing a story on the snow storm with reporter John Goldsmith. It turned out they had shot video of Flight 90 at the gate.
One story that wasn’t publicly known until I reported it on the 20th anniversary, 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.
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 the 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. Anyone willing to bet that US Airways Pilot Chesley Sullenberger will be honored at President Barack Obama’s first State of the Union address?
The Air Florida accident had a significant impact on regional cooperation among the fire departments in the Washington, DC area. There was much criticism about the lack of coordination between Virginia and DC emergency crews.
Among the loudest critics was Channel 9 Editorial Director Rich Adams. Rich, also a columnist for Firehouse Magazine, did many on-air editorials prodding local fire service leaders to do better regional planning. The incident has long been cited as an early catalyst for radio interoperability, two decades before the phrase became a mantra following September 11.
Within a half-hour of the crash into the Potomac, the area’s subway system, Metrorail, 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.
Below is part 1 of Seconds from Disaster, a National Geographic documentary on the crash of Flight 90 and the errors made in the cockpit. Click here for the other parts.
The emergency landing of United Flight 232 in Iowa on July 19, 1989 is often cited as one of the best examples of how crew resource management should be done. Pilot Al Haynes and his crew (including an off-duty pilot on board who offered a hand) were hailed as heroes in doing what might have seemed impossible in landing a severely crippled jet, saving the lives of 185 of the 285 people on board. Will Flight 1549 Pilot Sullenberger and his crew now be the ones used for the textbook example of excellent crew resource management?