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Today is the 40th anniversary of the 14th Street Bridge plane crash that killed 78 people

14th Street Bridge in 2001 (via Wikipedia Creative Commons)

Today (Jan. 13) is the 40th anniversary of Air Florida Flight 90 crashing into the 14th Street Bridge, a tragedy that killed 78 people.

It was a snowy January day in 1982, with a number of flights being delayed by the winter weather and National Airport even closing for a period of time. After a nearly two-hour delay, Air Florida Flight 90 took off right before 4 p.m., but after only getting 350 feet in the air, it came right down — a victim of pilot error and ice buildup.

The aircraft carrying 79 people crashed into the barrier wall of the northbound span of the 14th Street Bridge, between Arlington and D.C. It struck seven occupied vehicles and plunged into the icy Potomac River below.

The crash killed 78 people in all, including four people on the ground, with another nine people injured. Five people onboard the plane survived.

Arlington firefighters were among the first on scene, navigating treacherous road conditions and heavy traffic en route to assist with the rescue operation.

There were heroes, like Gene Windsor, Lenny Skutnik and Roger Olian, onlookers who jumped into the cold waters to save drowning passengers.

Arland D. Williams Jr. was a passenger himself who survived the initial crash and needed saving, but kept handing the rope to others to save themselves before him. By the time, a rescue helicopter came back to save that one last person, Williams, he had fallen into the Potomac and drowned.

He, too, was hailed as a hero by President Ronald Reagan. When the northbound span of the 14th Street Bridge was repaired and reopened in 1985, the bridge connecting D.C. to Arlington was renamed the “Arland D. Williams Jr. Memorial Bridge” in his honor.

https://twitter.com/VaDOTNOVA/status/1481671866767007745

WTOP spoke recently with one of its reporters who was covering the story that day, Dave Statter. Rhetorically, Statter questioned if a crash of this magnitude and in such a public setting happened today, would there have been heroes of this nature?

“Would people be so focused on getting those images, and so detached, that we wouldn’t have a Lenny Skutnik or Roger Olian, jumping in the river, trying to save those passengers?” Statter asked.

Some good did come out of unspeakable tragedy. The National Transportation Safety Board determined the crash was likely caused by bad anti-icing practices and operations. This led to dramatic improvement in how airplanes are operated in cold and icy weather, including new and innovative technology used to de-ice planes.

In an almost-unbelievable cruel twist, another terrible accident happened in D.C. that day. Less than 30 minutes after the Flight 90 crash and only a few miles away, a Metro train derailed killing three people and injuring 25 more.

The two incidents shared the front page of the Washington Post the next morning.

The front page of the Washington Post Jan. 14, 1982 with the crash of Air Florida Flight 90 (Image via Washington Post)

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