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Published on Jan 17, 2009
On January 13th, 1982, Air Florida flight 90 crashed into the ice-covered waters of the Potomac River. Only six of the 74 passengers survived the crash, and all six were clinging to the wreckage of the plan's tail section in the freezing water of the Potomac. Due to the icy conditions, it was impossible for rescuers on the shore to reach the stranded survivors.
Then, at 4:20pm, 19 minutes after the crash, a US Park Service helicopter with pilot Donald Usher and paramedic Gene Windsor arrived at the scene. In spite of near white-out conditions, the helicopter crew lowered makeshift rescue lines and began lifting the survivors, now suffering from hypothermia, to shore. One of them, Priscilla Tirado lost her grip and was floundering in the near freezing water. She tried several more times to grab the lifeline, but was unable to hold on, and began to drown. An onlooker, Leonard Skutnik, who had witnessed the crash as he walked home from his job at the Congressional Budget Office, stripped off his parka and plunged into the freezing water, swimming about 25-feet out to reach Tirado moments before she slipped beneath the surface. After pulling her to safety on the shore, one more survivor, Patricia Felch was pulled to safety by the helicopter crew. By then, the sixth person, Arland Williams, who had earlier passed the rescue line to flight attendant Kelly Duncan, had disappeared beneath the waters, along with the tail section of the plane.
Roger Olian, who had earlier entered the freezing water several times in an attempt to reach the survivors, along with Skutnik and the crew of the Park Service helicopter were honored by the US Coast Guard and the Carnegie Hero Fund Medal. President Reagan invited Leonard Skutnik to attend his State of the Union message two weeks later where Reagan publicly recognized and thanked Skutnik for his heroism. Kelly Duncan, a member of the Air Florida flight crew was commended in the NTSB report on the crash for giving her life vest to one of the passengers. The 14th Street Bridge, which had been severely damaged when struck by the jet, was renamed in honor of Arland Williams.