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 collision. This happened just north of the 14th street bridge in a tunnel south of the Federal Triangle station. Three people were killed in that incident and 25 were injured.
There was a lot to learn from that day. Through the years it has impacted those in fire and EMS, the airline industry, and many others.
The National Transportation Safety Board found that the failure to properly deice the plane, along with a pilot and co-pilot inexperienced in winter weather operations, contributed to the accident. The most significant factor leading directly to the crash was the crew not using 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 give the plane enough power to keep the Boeing 737-200 airborne. 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 his co-pilot have long been cited in the area of crew resource management for pilots and for those in other disciplines, including the fire service.
Another lesson for 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 of the plane crash initially, working somewhat independently from each other, were the District of Columbia Fire Department, the Arlington County Fire Department and the National Airport Fire Department. At that time there was not a strong regional plan on how such disasters should be handled. This brought much confusion on many issues, including over who was in charge of the incident.
Among the loudest critics of how these incidents were handled was WDVM-TV Editorial Director Rich Adams. Rich, who died in 1996, was also a columnist for Firehouse Magazine and a member of the Bethesda-Chevy Chase Rescue Squad. In the days and months that followed the twin disasters, Rich did many on-air editorials prodding local fire service leaders to come up with better regional planning. Starting in the mid 1970s, the Northern Virginia fire departments had been working together daily with an automatic aid policy. But that policy stopped at the Virginia state line.
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 Washington 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.
One of the things most people remember that day was the rescue of the five survivors of the Air Florida Flight 90 crash. They were plucked from the icy Potomac by the US Park Police Eagle helicopter crew of pilot Donald Usher and medic Gene Windsor.
One story that wasn’t publicly known until a TV report I did during the 20th anniversary in 2002, is that the actions of another US Park Police pilot possibly saved the day, allowing Usher and Windsor to make those rescues.
In 1982, US Park Police did not supply a snow plow for the hanger in Anacostia Park. Pilot Ron Galey took the call alerting the helicopter crews 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 to take off. Without that effort, the chopper may have arrived too late for the rescues.
Galey was also the pilot who took the call from National Airport’s tower notifying them that a jet had slammed into the Pentagon on September 11.
There were a number of other heroes that day. Arland Williams, is 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 named for Arland Williams.
Another hero is 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 jumped into the river a short time later. Skutnik’s actions were captured on video by TV cameraman Chester Panzer (watch video above). Skutnik helped bring survivor Priscilla Tirado to shore. Lenny Skutnik was recognized days later during President Ronald Reagan’s State of the Union address. It began the tradition of presidents honoring heroes during that event.
A personal connection
The Wednesday afternoon Air Florida Flight 90 crashed I was home in my apartment in Pentagon City, Virginia a short distance from the 14th Street Bridge. It was three years before my television career would begin and 10-years after my radio career had started. At that moment, that career was stalled.
I was unemployed, thanks to being fired weeks earlier as a traffic reporter for KIX-106 Radio. The firing was over a safety issue with the airplane. One afternoon taking off from Woodbridge Airport we barely cleared the trees because of an under wing electronic sign on the Cessna 172. The sign flashed messages for the sponsor of the traffic reports. My demand to get rid of the sign did not go over well with the sponsor, the ad agency or my bosses at the radio station. The sign stayed. They got rid of me.
I was scheduled to have an interview for what was my best job prospect on Friday, January 15. My friend, WTOP traffic reporter Bob Marbourg, wanted the all-news radio station to use me as his vacation relief. Bob got his job at WTOP just before Thanksgiving in 1979. Bob was hired to replace traffic reporter Steve Thompson after Thompson, along with his pilot, were seriously injured when the plane they were in crashed in the back yard of a Vienna, Virginia home during an afternoon rush hour. Now, it was another rush hour plane crash that was about to give me my job at WTOP.
The scanners were on in my apartment as I watched the snow fall. The first report of the crash came via the National Airport fire department frequency. I called WTOP Radio to tell them what I had heard. The person who answered had no idea who I was and was skeptical of what I was telling them. Somehow I got Steve Thompson on the phone. Steve, now recovered from his plane crash, was the assistant news director at the station and had arranged my upcoming interview.
After explaining to Steve what I heard, I got into my car and worked my way through the snowy streets of Pentagon City and Crystal City to the Twin Bridges Marriott hotel near the Virginia end of the 14th Street Bridge. With binoculars in hand, I found a top floor room with the door open and people on the balcony looking at the plane crash scene. The people let me in and allowed me to use the phone to give WTOP its first live reports. That on-air audition replaced the interview that was supposed to occur and WTOP immediately employed me to help cover the aftermath of the plane crash. They kept me working until I made the move to TV in 1985.
Jamie McIntyre, who later became CNN’s Pentagon correspondent, saved a story (below) he did on the first anniversary about WTOP’s coverage of the two tragic incidents. Five-years-ago, another friend, Cindy Rich, was kind enough to interview me about that day for Washingtonian Magazine (you can read that story here).