Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Remembering The Courageous Bank Examiner

On January 13th 1982 Air Florida Flight 90 crashed shortly after takeoff from Washington DC's National Airport when the airplane's tail section contacted the 14th Street Bridge and the airplane broke apart as it entered the partially frozen Potomac River. The weather in Washington DC that day was severe - temperature in the mid 20's F and heavy snow. Many offices and businesses had shut down early and the roads were jammed with traffic.

The Wikipedia entry for Air Florida Flight 90 provides details of the events that day and this NTSB abstract gives a short summary of the accident.

The story of Air Florida Flight 90 taught us valuable lessons about de-icing airplanes, and Crew Resource Management (CRM) but on this anniversary I'd like to recall another valuable lesson about the human spirit.

Six passengers survived the initial crash by clinging to pieces of wreckage floating in the river. With water temperatures of 33 F hypothermia sets in quickly and time to exhaustion or unconsciousness can be as short as 15 minutes and survival time as short as 30 minutes. One of those passengers did not make it to safety because he gave the rescue helicopter lifeline to other survivors rather than taking it for himself.

The day after the crash the Washington Post described this passenger -
"He was about 50 years old, one of half a dozen survivors clinging to twisted wreckage bobbing in the icy Potomac when the first helicopter arrived. To the copter's two-man Park Police crew he seemed the most alert. Life vests were dropped, then a flotation ball. The man passed them to the others. On two occasions, the crew recalled last night, he handed away a life line from the hovering machine that could have dragged him to safety. The helicopter crew – who rescued five people, the only persons who survived from the jetliner – lifted a woman to the riverbank, then dragged three more persons across the ice to safety. Then the life line saved a woman who was trying to swim away from the sinking wreckage, and the helicopter pilot, Donald W. Usher, returned to the scene, but the man was gone,"

source: "A Hero – Passenger Aids Others, Then Dies", The Washington Post, January 14, 1982.

Arland D. Williams, a 46 year old bank examiner, was the surviving passenger who drowned after giving the helicopter lifeline to other passengers.

A clergyman, said of Arland D. Williams,
"His heroism was not rash. Aware that his own strength was fading, he deliberately handed hope to someone else, and he did so repeatedly. On that cold and tragic day, Arland D. Williams Jr. exemplified one of the best attributes of human nature, specifically that some people are capable of doing "anything" for total strangers."
Arland D. Williams was posthumously awarded the U.S. Coast Guard Gold Lifesaving Medal, Washington's 14th street bridge was renamed in his honor, and an elementary school is named after him in his hometown - Mattoon, Illinois.

The following people also received awards for bravery as a result of their acts on that day:

Roger Olian, bystander who jumped in the water to help survivors
Lenny Skutnik, bystander who jumped in the water to help survivors
Donald Usher, helicopter pilot
Melvin Windsor, helicopter paramedic

There were multiple acts of heroism on that day 27 years ago - Arland D Williams gave his life to save others. Roger Olian and Lenny Skutnik both entered the freezing river to help the surviving passengers. The Park Service helicopter pilot Donald Usher and Melvin Windsor put themselves into danger using a makeshift lifeline under extreme weather conditions to save the passengers in the water.