The storm had formed over New Orleans, swirling out of a trough of low pressure over the Gulf of Mexico. It swept north-east over night, leaving the southern states under an unusually thick blanket of snow. In Alabama, a man died when frozen branches of a tree fell on him. Atlanta, Georgia, and Chicago both recorded their lowest temperatures of the century. By the morning of Wednesday, 13 January 1982, the blizzards had reached the capital, Washington D.C. At 1pm the Federal Aviation Authority (FAA) closed National Airport, a mile from the White House, for 73 minutes so ploughs could clear runways of a five-inch covering of snow.
In government offices all over the city, civil service chiefs anxiously scanned the cloud-laden skies, and soon after lunch, agreed to let all staff head home early to beat the expected drifts. Soon all roads out of the capital were choked with cars inching their way cautiously through the blinding snow. A vast snake of traffic edged across the frozen River Potomac on the dual carriageway 14th Street Bridge, part of Jefferson Davies Highway, the busiest route between Washington and the suburbs of Virginia. Then, at exactly 4pm, terror roared out of the sky in a disaster that was to claim 78 lives and stun a nation.
Air Florida Flight 90 had been due to leave National Airport for Fort Lauderdale and Tampa at 2:15pm. But it was 3pm before the 71 passengers – three of them carrying babies – left the departure lounge and filed into 21 rows of seats in their Boeing 737. Forty-one seats were left empty. Captain Larry Wheaton, 35 and first officer Roger Pettit checked their instruments and apologised for yet more delays while airport workers de-iced the wings with glycol fluid. Though visibility was still restricted to less than half a mile, the airport had re-opened, and the two men watched an arriving plane taxi to the terminal, noting the huge icicles hanging from its wings.
“I’m certainly glad there’s people taxing on the same place I want to go” said Wheaton. “I cant see the runway without these flags. Maybe further up ...”. Head stewardess Donna Adams looked out at the white landscape and said: “I love it out here, look at all the tyre tracks in the snow. Pettit was more concerned with practicalities.”Boy, this is a losing battle, trying to de-ice those things”, he muttered, watching men at work on the wings. “It gives you a false feeling of security, that’s all it does”.
At 3:38pm the B737 finally taxied out for a take-off from runway 36, at 6,870ft the longest at the National. Passengers were relieved that their long wait was finally ending. The sun of Florida seemed even more inviting in this Arctic weather. The two pilots viewed the slushy runway through the still-falling snow and elected to lift the nose wheel earlier than usual to assist the take-off. Just after 3:59pm the B737 left the contaminated runway 36.
Within 30 seconds the crew knew something was wrong. “... look at that thing .... that doesn’t seem right”, said Pettit, “Easy, v2, forward, forward” urged Wheaton. “Come on, forward .... forward ... just barely climb ...” he continued. The plane was shuddering and shaking badly. Pettit tuned to his captain “Larry, we’re going down, Larry ....” Wheaton replied coldly “I know it”. At 4:01 pm Flight 90 crashed.
On the 14th Street Bridge, less than a mile from National Airport, drivers trapped in the crawling traffic jam heard the plummeting jet before they saw it. “I heard a roar but I couldn’t see anything for the snow” said Justice Department clerk Lloyd Creger. “The engines were so cloud, they had to be going full blast. I couldn’t hear myself scream. Then I saw the plane coming out of the sky. It was just falling, but there didn’t seem anything wrong with it. The nose was up and the tail was down. Then there seemed to be no sound at all”. Another driver sobbed “I heard the noise of the jet getting louder and louder. I threw open my door and ran for my life. I didn’t stop to turn around, I just heard a massive bang as the plane hit the bridge”.
The stricken plane only just cleared a railway bridge to the south of the two choked road spans. As it roared low over the helpless commuters a wheel struck a truck on the southern carriageway and the plane tumbled over the parapet into the Potomac between the road bridges. It ripped the tops off five cars and swept others into the icy water.
The ice on the river shattered like a windshield hit by a rock and debris bounced into the air. Stunned witnesses slowly realised the enormity of what had happened. “There was twisted metal from crushed cars everywhere” said reporter Al Rossiter. “Some of the vehicles started burning and the truck that had been hit was hanging over the edge at a 45 degree angle. Vito Maggiolo said “There were bodies lying all over the bridge and bodies on the ice in the river. US Air Force Sergeant Jerome Lancaster said “I counted about six or seven people in the water who were alive, but they were messed up. We threw a rope out to one passenger”.
The B737 had broken into three sections on impact. The nose plunged straight under the surface, killing the flight crew instantly. The main fuselage belly flopped and settled briefly and horrified onlookers could see people inside strapped to their seats as the jagged wreckage slowly sank. But the tail miraculously floated for twenty minutes and most of the survivors came from there. Five emerged, battered and shaken and scuttled across the ice to safety. Others spilled like dolls into the icy water and desperately clung to pieces of wreckage or ice floes. People on the bridge threw every available cable out to them.
But with a city clogged by snow and traffic it made it impossible for the emergency services to react at full speed. Some staff were among those sent home early. Ambulances, fire engines and police cars were trapped in the jams having to swing on to the wide pavements in front of the White House to get through.
Incredibly, a second accident within minutes added to the chaos of the capital. A subway train packed with 1,000 commuters was derailed less than a mile and a quarter from the bridge, leaving three people dead and many hurt. Emergency services had to be diverted to cope there too.
The first rescue vehicles to reach the 14th Street Bridge arrived on the Virgina side of the Potomac at the same time as the first dozen police and armed forces helicopters arrived overhead, hovering dangerously close to the bridges to try to winch survivors to safety. And now the disaster took on almost bizarre proportions. TV crews alerted by the call-up of the emergency services arrived with their cameras and began to send live coverage of the drama to a multi-million coast-to-coast audience.
People were drowning and freezing to death less than 50 feet from the shore in water where they could survive for only 10 minutes. They feebly splashed around until the numbing cold paralysed muscles, making swimming impossible. They reached despairingly for lifelines hanging from helicopters, then slumped back beneath the surface, their hands too cold to keep a grip. A rescue official said “It was heart breaking to see them so close and not be able to help. No one would live more than a few minutes in that water”.
Stewardess Kelly Duncan, 23, dressed only in her thin short-sleeved blouse and uniform skirt, failed to repeatedly to grasp the rescue rings. It seemed she was doomed. Then helicopter pilot Donald Usher risked the lives of himself and crewman Gene Windsor by settling his craft almost on the water, while Windsor clambered out on to the landing skids and snatched Kelly to safety. She was rushed to hospital with a broken leg and hypothermia. Kelly was the only crew member to survive from Flight 90.
Priscilla Tirado was also in the water. She lunged at a cable but could not reach it. Her fading strength sent her under the surface but she bobbed up again and the helicopter crew three her a lifebelt attached to a line. Priscilla pushed her arm through it and seemed secure as the helicopter began to tow her ashore. But again she list her grip and plunged back into the water. Hundreds on the bridge and millions on TV watched her agony in despair. But only one man reacted.
Lennie Skutnik, a 38 year old desk worker on his way home from the Congressional Budget Office, tore off his jacket and boots and waded to the water, regardless of his own safety. Priscilla was almost unconscious, but Skutnik managed to push, pull and even kick her to the bank, where willing hands dragged them ashore. They shared an ambulance to hospital, he suffering from hypothermia, she critically ill – and unaware that her husband and two-month old son had both drowned.
Hero Skutnik, later praised by President Ronald Regan, was modest about his part in the rescue. “She just gave out” he told reporters. “Her eyes rolled back and she had just started to go under when I grabbed her. You could tell just by looking at her that she didn’t have an ounce of energy left in her. She seemed to be losing the will to live. I didn’t notice the cold at all while I was in the water. The only time I felt it was in the ambulance going to hospital afterwards. I noticed my toes were cold, that was all. I don’t think I was any kind of hero. It was just an automatic reaction”. But a hero he was.
However not all survived to tell of why they reacted as they did. Five times he grabbed lifelines thrown down by helicopters, but on every occasion he handed the rope to others who were dragged or lifted to shore. “He could have gone first” said pilot Donald Usher. “We threw the ring to him but he passed it to a man who was bleeding badly from a head injury. We went back four times and each time he kept passing the ring to someone else, including three ladies hanging on to the tail section. The last time we went back, he had gone. The ice had formed over where he had been. We stayed there ten minutes, just in the hopes had had crawled onto the fuselage and found an air pocket. But he had gone. He’s the real hero of this whole thing. It you were in his situation, a hundred yards from shore and knowing that every minute you were closer to freezing to death, could you do it?”.
Co-pilot Gene Windsor said “The guy was amazing. I’ve never seen such guts. It seemed to me he decided that the women and the injured man needed to get out of there before him and even as he was going under he stuck to the decision. Afterwards we looked everywhere for him, but he was gone”. Only when all the bodies had been recovered was the identity of the man established. Arland Williams, 46, a federal government employee, was the only one who had died from drowning alone. All the rest had broken limbs.
Mercifully most of the plane’s passengers died instantly on impact. But some of the 78 victims died horrifyingly slowly. One elderly man’s story was told by Salvation Army major Harold Anderson “He was alive when police saw him under the ice and he watched rescuers trying to get to him to get him out of the water. He was trying frantically to get out, but by the time they got the ice broken he was gone. They couldn’t review him”.
The first survivors were admitted to the George Washington Medical Centre 45 minutes after the crash. Three and half hours after the disaster hospitals were officially told to expect no more patients. Only five people aboard the plane had survived. Four drivers on the bridge had been killed; sixteen people from the bridge were in hospital.
The gristly search for bodies went on long after dark. Floodlights and the flashing lights of rescue vehicles lit up an eerie scene as men with boat hooks fished from a tug and rubber dinghies between the ice floes near the wreckage of the white and blue Air Florida jet. Helicopters switched their attention from the river to the bank, airlifting the less seriously hurt away from the tragic scene. Bodies were laid out in the snow and a makeshift mortuary set up in a tent. Army ice-breakers arrived and divers in specially thick wetsuits tried to batter their way into the fuselage to reach bodies till strapped into seats.
Diving operations continued over the next week, but it was a slow process. Visibility under water was reduced to 18 inches and the jagged wreckage was surrounded by treacherous currents and submerged ice. Spilled aviation fuel made the wreckage slippery and the Arctic weather never let up. One diver had to be rescued when his breathing valve froze up and a barge carrying a crane was holed by ice. Divers were restricted to 30 minutes at a time in the 25 feet deep water, despite maximum protection clothing. It took them seven days to recover the black box flight recorders, vital to the subsequent inquiry into why the crash happened.
Because of the snow, no-one, not even the control tower staff at National Airport had seen Flight 90 leave the ground. The FAA investigators had to rely on the automatic tapes of the pilots, quoted earlier, and the evidence of the few survivors.
Both stewardess Kelly Duncan and passenger Burt Hamilton, 40, spoke of the plane shuddering badly soon after take-off. Mr Hamilton, whose seat was by the galley at the back of the B737, said “I knew something was wrong as it took off. The plane seemed to take an awful long time to pick up speed. It really started vibrating – a strong shaking, so bad that I tightened my seatbelt and started to pray a lot”.
Businessman Joseph Stiley, 42, a private pilot, also claimed he knew that all was not well. Thumbing through his paper with his secretary, be turned to her as the engines roared and said “We’re not going to make it, we’re going down”. Later, in hospital with two fractured legs, he said “Things were not going right soon after we started down the runway. We didn’t have the speed. It seemed like the pilots tried to abort, but ran out of runway. He had to make the decision to go, so we took off. We got up a little bit, but it didn’t climb like a normal 737. We got a fairly descent angle, then stalled and we went down. We were in the air only 20 or 30 seconds before impact, when I passed out”.
The disaster was the first major crash since President Regan had fired 11,500 striking air traffic controllers (ATC) the previous August. The controllers’ union had warned that pilots flying blind in winter would miss the help from the ground they usually relied on. But FAA chiefs dismissed ATC error as a possible cause of the accident.
Since man first took to the air, ice on the wings, restricting their power of lift, or ice in the engine, distorting air intake and reducing power, have always been a danger. And within days of the Potomac disaster, it was revealed that just one week before the crash the British had warned their American counterparts that the B737 was particularly vulnerable to icy conditions.