January 13th, 2012
03:13 PM ET

This day in history: 1982 Air Florida crash in nation's captial

On January 13, 1982, Air Florida Flight 90 crashed into the 14th Street Bridge across the Potomac River in Washington, immediately after takeoff in a severe snowstorm - an incident that would leave 78 people dead, including four on the ground.

Freezing weather gripped much of the East Coast that morning when the Boeing 737-222 airliner took off from Washington National Airport with 79 passengers and crew members. The plane was scheduled to stop in Tampa, Florida, before continuing to Fort Lauderdale.

According to the National Transportation Safety Board, the captain and crew's reactions to the icy conditions outside put the plane in jeopardy. It failed to get airborne enough to clear the 14th Street Bridge, where it slammed into seven occupied vehicles, killing four people in those vehicles. The plane then lurched into the Potomac, where it sank quickly into the ice-strewn river, leaving only the tail section afloat for survivors to cling to.

About 20 minutes after the plane plunged into the Potomac, a rescue helicopter from the U.S. Park Service arrived and began lifting weakened survivors from the water. The nation watched newscasts showing the helicopter hovering over the icy river and rescuers plucking survivors from the fast-sinking wreckage.

Only six passengers were not killed on impact. A blizzard slowed rescue efforts as icy roads and traffic jams kept emergency vehicles from reaching the scene.

One of initial survivors was Arland D. Williams Jr. As rescuers frantically threw lines to survivors, Williams continually handed off the ropes to others.

When rescuers returned a final time to scoop Williams to safety, they found he'd disappeared under the water along with the sinking tail section of the plane. His body was later recovered; the other five in the water survived.

The 14th street bridge across the Potomac river was renamed the Arland D. Williams Jr. Memorial Bridge.

Roger Olian was among the rescuers who jumped in the icy water to help survivors. His story is in the video above.

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Filed under: History
soundoff (8 Responses)
  1. Samuel Getaneh Bogale

    What a tragedy. Some moments in history will forever scar our memories.

    January 13, 2012 at 3:16 pm | Report abuse |
  2. chrissy

    True, makes me cry just reading this story!

    January 13, 2012 at 4:14 pm | Report abuse |
  3. banasy©

    I remember this so, so well.
    Wha a horrendous tragedy.

    January 13, 2012 at 5:00 pm | Report abuse |
  4. BOMBO ©

    Wow. 30 years ago. My last year of high school. I feel old.

    I remember Williams, though no one knew his name until later. I wonder how many of us would do the same thing.

    January 13, 2012 at 5:31 pm | Report abuse |
  5. LaWanda

    My mother has told me the story about this crash since I can remember. This happened on the day I was born. Even worst the doctor whom had not long delivered me boarded this plane and lost his life. Today I too am 30 years old and it saddens me everytime I see this story.

    January 13, 2012 at 6:20 pm | Report abuse |
  6. Portland tony

    I flew into National about a week after the accident. The bridge was still closed and I can still remember the lump in my throat we passed over the bridge to touch down. So sad!

    January 13, 2012 at 7:37 pm | Report abuse |
  7. A hard day...

    I remember this day so well – at the same time this was happening, there was a crash in the metro. Add in the snowstorm and schools full of scared and stranded kids, many whose parents rode the metro and only knew there had been fatalities... We finally made it home at six pm, and it was hours later before my parents walked safely in the door. One of those days that really marks you as a kid. I still think of this flight every time I cross that bridge or fly in or out of National...

    January 13, 2012 at 10:51 pm | Report abuse |
    • Lucille

      I remember that day, too. Didn't get home from work until night time. Took me four hours.

      But the tragedy was sad. Hope it never happens again. I was down by L'Enfant Plaza on 7th Street, not far from 14th Street.

      January 14, 2012 at 12:39 am | Report abuse |