January 14, 1982 edition of The Post from the Millennium Milestones section on washingtonpost.com
I can only vaguely remember the Air Florida 90 crash into the 14th Street Bridge thirty years ago today (The Post). Mostly, I remember looking when we’d go over the bridge I’d ask where the plane crashed. A derailment of a Metro Blue Line train near Smithsonian station also occurred that afternoon, killing three.
Five years ago, I did an extensive post on the worst transportation day in Washington D.C. history on Metroblogging DC. I’ve gone ahead and found the content and included it here with updates:
Thirty years ago today Washington had one of the worst transportation days in its history. At 4:01 p.m. Air Florida 90 plunged tail-first into the Rochambeau Bridge (main line, I-395 northbound span) killing 78 people in the plane and on the bridge. There were five survivors from the plane, all of whom were rescued from the icy Potomac River by helicopter. Another passenger, Arland D. Williams, Jr. was credited with saving their lives:
“That guy was amazing,” said M.E. (Gene) Windsor, the paramedic aboard the aircraft. “All I can tell you is I’ve never seen that kind of guts. It seemed to me like he decided that the women, the men who were bleeding, needed to get out before him, and even if he was going under he stuck to his decision and helped them get out.”
Williams perished in the water that day.
Another hero, Lenny Skutnik (The Post) survives to this day.
Footage of Skutnik — a federal employee on his way home from work who swam out to rescue a drowning stranger — stuck in the public imagination. Like it or not, he and others were hailed as heroes. At President Ronald Reagan’s State of the Union address two weeks later, Skutnik, seated beside Nancy Reagan, was singled out for his courage, and a tradition was born of presidents using the occasion to recognize ordinary people who had done extraordinary things.
Tragedy struck again on that snowy day not long after the plane crash. A Blue Line train headed to Addison Road derailed (sound familiar?) near the Smithsonian station, killing three people. In his article, 14th Street Bridge, the Air Florida Crash, and Subway Disaster, Scott Kozel of Roads to the Future noted:
The removal of the demolished subway car from the subway tunnel was difficult. It had to be taken apart and taken out in pieces. The destroyed tracks had to be rebuilt. The accident occurred at an interlocking (crossover) section of line. It took 5 days for the subway tunnel at the accident site to be reopened to train service.
During the period of closures of the subway tunnel and the 14th Street Bridge, there were major traffic and transit jams. Ten-mile-long peak period backups were common on some major thoroughfares. Some trips that ordinarily took 40 minutes by auto or transit, took 3 to 4 hours, and peak periods stretched far beyond normal peak period times. The snowstorm on the day of the disasters dropped an average of 6 inches of snow, and many places got 4 more inches by the next morning. Snow removal was complicated by sub-freezing temperatures and generally bad traffic conditions.
That snowy day may have been the worst transportation day for the Washington region ever, even worse than Sept. 11, 2001.
In 1983, the District memorialized Williams by renaming the Rochambeau span the Arland D. Williams Jr. Bridge. Williams was also memorialized by his alma mater, The Citadel. During The Citadel’s 1993 Commencement Address, former President Ronald Reagan spoke of Williams at length. President Reagan had presided over the posthumous awarding of the United States Coast Guard’s Gold Lifesaving Medal to Williams in a 1983 White House ceremony. An elementary school in his Illinois hometown as also named for him.
The legacy of the Air Florida 90 crash was more than just Williams’ heroism. Yesterday’s Post reported that the crash caused the aviation community and other high risk industries to re-examine themselves:
While most air disasters quickly become historical footnotes, aviation safety experts say few crashes have left a legacy as sweeping as Air Florida Flight 90. Though some of the lessons may seem simple, such as communication and management skills, it helped break down an authoritarian cockpit culture dominated by captains. Over time, the principles learned from the disaster gradually migrated to other modes of transportation and into businesses, even hospitals.
“This accident was pivotal because it helped draw attention to the fact that pilots need to communicate better,” said Robert L. Sumwalt III, vice chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board and a former airline pilot who took off from National hours before the Air Florida crash. “This accident was ingrained in the minds of the entire world, and we watched the recovery efforts as they happened. I don’t know of any other accident that has had this amount of impact on aviation but also in other industries.”
In 2019, I compiled several videos from the day.
1.) ABC News Breaking News from WLS-Chicago
2.) WDVM Channel 9 (now WUSA) – Washington, D.C.
3.) CBS Evening News
4.) AP raw video
The ABC report has a significant number of errors because breaking news is hard, but damn the late Frank Reynolds was really good.
Capital Weather Gang: The 30 year anniversary of the crash of Air Florida Flight 90
The Buzz: Air Florida crash: Washington Post coverage from Jan. 14, 1982
Special Report: Air Florida 90 – AirDisaster.com
Bridge of Sighs – The Observer Magazine
HIstory of Air Florida Airlines – AviationExplorer.com
Air Florida Flight 90 – Wikipedia