Air Florida survivors reflect on crash that changed their lives

January 12, 2012

Thirty years ago, Kelly Duncan was clinging to flotsam in the icy Potomac, thinking about her life.

“I was kind of afraid of God at that point,” she said recently. “I thought he must be really mad at me.”

Duncan was a flight attendant aboard Air Florida Flight 90 when it hit the 14th Street bridge and crashed into the river Jan. 13, 1982. She was the lone crew member to survive. Seventy-eight passengers, motorists and crew members died. Five people aboard the plane survived the day.

For Duncan, the day was a rebirth, she said. At 22, she was, by her own account, a party girl. The weekend before the accident, she and some friends drank their way down the Florida Keys.

She was in the river for 20 minutes. At first, she was angry at the people on the bank, who were staring helplessly at the six people clinging to the tail section.

But then, “I felt like that was the first time I felt God’s presence,” she said.

She returned to Air Florida five months later. The first flight was nerve-racking, but she found solace in religion.

Soon she settled into the old rhythm and took it in stride when a passenger at National Airport asked her whether his ticket was correct and the flight listed was not destined for the 14th Street bridge. That had become a stale joke. By 1984, she had left the airline to study early childhood education.

Duncan now works at Christ Fellowship in Miami, where she ministers to children and oversees stage productions and skits.

“I don’t know how people could go through something like this without faith,” she said.

Joseph Stiley, now 72, also remembers the day as transformative. He thought it had started off badly.

Stiley, then a vice president at General Telephone & Electronics Corp., had grim news to deliver to employees in Huntsville, Ala. The factory there was about to be sold, and GTE would keep only a handful of engineers.

“A lot of people were going to lose their jobs,” Stiley said.

On top of that, he was missing his son’s 12th birthday in Manassas.

He and his assistant, Patricia Felch, were aboard Flight 90 when it crashed. Stiley, who broke more than 60 bones, was the most severely injured of the survivors and, with Felch, the closest survivors to the front of the plane.

“I remember coming out of the airplane. I remember the [rescue] helicopter. . . . I remember the ambulance. I remember seeing the lights in the hospital. I remember a lot of other things related to the Air Florida crash, but I don’t know how much of that was because of the coverage.”

Stiley said he often feels odd when he isn’t sure a memory is something he experienced or something he saw on television.

“I get lots of intense dreams, and I can’t separate some of those experiences,” he said.

He does remember the vividness of life after the crash: His divorce. Returning to GTE 18 months later after intense physical therapy.

It was different, though. People stared, and someone had filled his job. He left within two weeks.

He went to work for Comdial in Charlottesville but eventually moved to the West Coast and worked at tech firms until the late 1990s.

Now in semi-retirement, he is building a bed-and-breakfast in Puerto Escondido, Mexico. He spends about two of every six weeks there and considers it his home. He also spends time in Port Ludlow, Wash., and in Ronan, Mont., where he has a hydroponic greenhouse, a hobby of his. Stiley, the father of six, has eight grandchildren and three great-grandchildren. One of the great-grandchildren recently started kindergarten.

“Two of the biggest changes were I got to the ‘Best Coast,’ and I’m doing work that is fresh and new and exciting for me,” Stiley said.

Another survivor, Priscilla Tirado, moved to Florida and has been reluctant to talk about the crash.

The other two survivors are no longer living. After the crash, Bert Hamilton moved to Florida and became a motivational speaker. Felch, Stiley’s assistant, married and divorced after the crash, moved from Northern Virginia to Florida and back. Hamilton and Felch died in April 2002, 16 days apart.

It was at church that Kelly Duncan met her future husband, John Moore, a professional tennis player in Miami.

They have been married for 28 years. Had the crash not happened, she might not have met him, she said. They had three children together, all now in their 20s. The oldest, a son, recently wed.

“Oh, gosh, I’ve enjoyed my kids,” she said. “I’m waiting for grandkids.”

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