Gene Windsor, who rescued Air Florida crash survivors in 1982, dies at 74


Gene Windsor pulling Patricia Felch from the Potomac River after the crash of Air Florida Flight 90 on Jan. 13, 1982. (Photo by UPI)

The high temperature at National Airport was 26 degrees on Jan. 13, 1982, and heavy snow fell throughout the day. With near-whiteout conditions, Gene Windsor didn’t expect to be flying that day, in his job as a paramedic with the U.S. Park Police.

But it would turn out to be the most memorable and heroic day of his career.

Despite the weather, flights continued to depart from National Airport throughout the day. After a long delay, Air Florida Flight 90, bound for Tampa, took off at 4 p.m.

The aircraft struggled to gain altitude and speed. At 4:01 p.m., its rear wheels and tail section struck a span of the 14th Street bridge carrying traffic from Virginia into the District.

The final words on the airplane’s cockpit voice recorder were from co-pilot Roger Petit to pilot Larry Wheaton: “Larry, we’re going down, Larry.”

Wheaton: “I know it.”

The fuselage broke apart and sank under three-inch-thick ice in the Potomac, between two spans of the 14th Street bridge. Only the airplane’s blue-and-green tail remained above the surface.

Of the five people who survived the crash, all were pulled to safety by Mr. Windsor and the pilot of the Park Police helicopter, Donald Usher. Much of the rescue effort was captured on television and in photographs.

Mr. Windsor, who was born in Washington and served 22 years with the Park Police, died Aug. 24 at his home in Surfside Beach, S.C. He was 74. The cause was a brain aneurysm, said his wife, Maureen Windsor.

Visibility was so poor that air-traffic controllers could not see the Air Florida plane leave the runway. After it disappeared from radar, it took 14 minutes before anyone called the Park Police.

At first, Usher and Mr. Windsor were not certain where the crash took place.

“When you think of an aircraft accident,” Usher said at the time, “you think of this huge mass of debris, including bodies and everything else scattered every which way.

“It wasn’t that way. It was just the tail section, six people hanging on it, and busted ice.”

Usher lowered the helicopter between two spans of the 14th Street bridge, as surrounding traffic came to a halt and bystanders looked on in horror.

Mr. Windsor wrapped a rope around the first passenger to be rescued, Bert Hamilton. On the next trip, a man on the wreckage handed the rescue line to Kelly Duncan, a flight attendant, who was pulled to safety.

When the helicopter returned to the wreckage a third time, the same man directed others toward the rescue lines. For a short time, the helicopter was pulling three survivors toward safety.

Passenger Joe Stiley, who was severely injured, held another passenger, Priscilla Tirado, around the waist, but she lost her grip near the shore.

The wind from the chopper’s rotor blew Tirado back into river, where she landed on her back on an ice floe. Mr. Windsor tossed the buoy to her, but her arm quickly slipped out.

Lenny Skutnik, driving home from his job at the Congressional Budget Office, was watching from the riverbank as Tirado screamed for help. He tore off his boots and coat, swam toward Tirado and pulled her toward land.

Meanwhile, Usher and Mr. Windsor went back to retrieve the final survivor, Patricia Felch, from the ice-choked river. Because she was unable to grasp the rope, Usher lowered the helicopter until the skids broke the surface of the water.

Mr. Windsor, who was not wearing a safety harness, stepped onto the helicopter’s skid and reached down for Felch.

“He literally picked her out of the water, then lifted her onto the skid,” Usher said Wednesday in an interview. “She was able to hook one leg over the toe of his boot, and he held on to her coat. That’s how we got her back to shore.”

Usher and Mr. Windsor returned one more time to the shifting wreckage and continued to search for the man who had selflessly passed the safety rope to others.

“We looked in the water, in the wreck, everywhere, but he was gone,” Mr. Windsor told The Washington Post at the time. “That guy was amazing. All I can tell you is I’ve never seen that kind of guts.”

Besides the 74 victims aboard Flight 90, four motorists on the 14th Street bridge were either crushed by the aircraft or pushed into the water.

By tragic coincidence, the first fatal Metro rail accident occurred the same day, when three people were killed in a derailment near Federal Triangle. The combined rescue efforts, compounded by bad weather, created chaos as rescue vehicles drove on sidewalks past the White House.

After the rescue effort was called off, the helicopter returned to the hangar, Usher said Wednesday, “and that’s when we discovered the whole world was watching.”

Melvin Eugene Windsor was born July 24, 1940, in Washington and grew up in Rockville. He was a 1958 graduate of Wheaton High School.

He was a carpet store manager, among other occupations, before joining the Park Police in 1971. He retired in 1993 and moved to South Carolina, where he was a police officer for a number of years.

His first marriage, to Elizabeth Hamlett, ended in divorce. A daughter from his first marriage, Christina Windsor-Scott, died in 2011. A stepson, Kenneth Homan, died in 2008.

Survivors include his wife of 41 years, Maureen Glynn Windsor of Surfside Beach; two children from his first marriage, Debra Fail of Turlock, Calif., and Gina Greenwood of Gardnerville, Nev.; a son from his second marriage, Keith E. Windsor of Cedar City, Utah; three stepchildren, Kim Gabel of Conway, S.C., Kerry Brown of Aiken, S.C., and William Homan of Inwood, W.Va.; two brothers, Donald Windsor of Mount Airy, Md., and William Windsor of Frederick, Md.; a sister, Janet Thompson of Thurmont, Md.; 16 grandchildren; and seven great-grandchildren.

Mr. Windsor and Usher received awards for valor from the Interior Department and other organizations and appeared on national television.

The passenger who was the anonymous hero in the water was identified in 1983 as Arland D. Williams Jr., a bank examiner from Atlanta. The span of the 14th Street bridge that was struck by Flight 90 is now named in his honor.

The Air Florida crash prompted many reforms in flight procedures during cold and snowy weather.

Soon after the rescue effort, Mr. Windsor said he “never worried about falling” from the helicopter, even though he was not wearing a safety belt.

“I worried,” Usher said at the time. “I didn’t want to lose Gene. I never mentioned that to him, but I kept thinking to myself, ‘Please don’t fall out.’ ”

Matt Schudel has been an obituary writer at The Washington Post since 2004.
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