Wednesday, January 14, 2015
Ice on the Potomac - Thirty Three Years After the Air Florida Crash
I was driving home from a poetry reading in Arlington, Virginia a couple of nights ago and I noticed that the Potomac River was completely iced over and reflecting the soft sheen of light from the Lincoln Memorial with the Washington Monument beyond. We had a few days of uncharacteristic arctic temperatures and this was the first time I had seen the river covered in ice in quite a long time. Despite the late hour and the cold temperatures I could not help but stop for a few minutes to enjoy the peaceful setting. Washington really is a beautiful city, especially at night.
A few minutes later I was crossing the Fourteenth Street Bridge spanning the Potomac between the Pentagon, on the Virginia shore, and the Jefferson Memorial and adjacent Tidal Basin on the Washington, DC side of the river. One more time I was able to look down at the ice reflecting the city lights. And, as it often does whenever I cross this bridge . . . even now thirty three years later . . . my memory flashes back to January 13, 1983. A blizzard had descended on Washington that morning and commuters were beginning to head home early as the city slowly crept to a halt and the snows piled higher. The roads leading out of the city and across the Potomac bridges were jammed with people trying desperately to get home safely. National Airport, situated on the Virginia side of the river less than mile south of the Fourteenth Street Bridge, had closed earlier in the day during the heaviest part of the storm, but reopened around noon under very marginal conditions as the snowfall slackened.
That afternoon Air Florida Flight 90 was rolling away from the terminal after being de-iced prior to departure following a delay in its scheduled take-off for Tampa and Fort Lauderdale when the airport was once again closed due to heavy snow. It was still snowing hard as the aircraft waited on the taxi-way for over 45 minutes before it was eventually cleared for take off shortly before 4pm. It would never reach its intended destinations. It remained in the air for only a few seconds before it stalled and dropped toward the icy river below. It struck the northbound span of the Fourteenth Street Bridge crushing six cars and a truck halted in the massive traffic backup traffic on the bridge and killing four. It tore away almost 100 feet of the bridge before plunging into the ice between the two spans of the bridge some 200 feet from the Virginia shore. The wreckage quickly sank, only the tail section rising from the icy waters. Four of the five crew members were killed along with 70 of 74 passengers, many of whom survived the initial crash but were unable to escape the sunken wreckage. Rescue operations were hampered by the worsening weather, ice in the river, and difficulty reaching the crash site by land and water. Still, there were several instances of heroism to save those who had managed to escape the wreckage.
A half hour after the plane crash the early rush hour sent thousands of commuters underground into Metro subway system in order to get out of the city that was quicky shutting down. A second tragedy struck just a short distance from the plane crash site when a single Metro train derailed beneath the National Mall between the Federal Triangle and Smithsonian stations. Three passengers were killed and two dozen injured while others were stranded in the tunnel darkness for hours. Rescue efforts here were compounded by the fact that much of the area’s emergency equipment was responding to the Air Florida crash site. This was the Metro system’s first fatal accident since it opened six years earlier.
I was one of the Washington workers trying to get home that afternoon. I came to work as expected like many others despite the weather forecast. I though I could stick it out as the snowfall lessened throughout the morning. But the heavy snow squalls returned in the afternoon and with early dismissal for federal workers, I walked to my car parked a short distance away for what is under normal conditions a 20 minute drive home. Living in Maryland, I did not have to take a bridge and my escape from the city offered various options. Listening to the car radio for traffic reports and traveling plowed back streets as much as possible, I was able to gradually make my way home although the 20-minute drive took me over three hours to complete. As I drove I also listened to the first reports of the plane crash and Metro accident, both less than a mile from where I worked. The entire afternoon was a surreal blur, and that night, as I sat safe, warm and alone at home, I watched the story of the afternoon’s events unfold on television.
There were countless stories about the victims, the survivors, and those who put their own lives in danger to assist in rescue efforts. One story, however, kept resonating with me that evening and in the days that followed the tragedy. Priscilla Tirado, her husband, José, and their two-month-old son Jason were flying home to Florida. Immediately after the crash witnesses recalled Priscilla thrashing in the water and screaming for her baby, too weak to grab the line lowered from a circling helicopter. Lenny Skutnik, a young federal worker trying to get home, jumped into the icy waters and pulled her to safety. Her husband and son perished; the infant’s body the last to be recovered almost two weeks after the crash. There was one thing I could not get out of my mind as I watched this tragedy unfold. A few days later my wife and my own two month old son would be flying home on Air Florida. They say that lightning does not strike twice. I wanted desperately to believe this was true.
So this is why I think about that day in January 1982 each time I drive across that bridge, especially when the ice is on the Potomac reflecting the lights of a now peaceful city.
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