In a Moment of Horror, Rousing Acts of Courage

Lenny Skutnik pulls Priscilla Tirado to safety. He had been watching from the shore when he saw Tirado fail to grasp a helicopter's lifeline.
Lenny Skutnik pulls Priscilla Tirado to safety. He had been watching from the shore when he saw Tirado fail to grasp a helicopter's lifeline. (By Chester Panzer -- Wjla Via United Press International)
By Sue Anne Pressley Montes
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, January 13, 2007

It happens sometimes: Lenny Skutnik will be watching television at home in Lorton, and suddenly, there he is on the screen -- years younger -- a bystander leaping into the icy Potomac River to rescue a survivor of the 1982 Air Florida crash. He is still embarrassed when people call him a hero for doing that.

"I wasn't a hero," he said. "I was just someone who helped another human being. We're surrounded by heroes. What made this different was that it was caught on film and went all over the world."

That day -- Jan. 13, 1982 -- was a tragic one in the Washington area. As a blinding snowstorm gripped the region, Air Florida Flight 90 clipped the 14th Street bridge on takeoff and plunged into the river, killing 74 passengers and four people on the bridge.

Amid the chaos and sadness, several acts of bravery stood out: a helicopter pilot who plucked survivors from the freezing river; a medic who climbed out to grab a victim too weak to help herself; two bystanders who could no longer bear to watch helplessly from the sidelines. One of the injured passengers, later identified as Arland Williams Jr. of Atlanta, drowned after passing the lifeline repeatedly to others.

They saved five people.

"Thanks to the people who got me out that day, I've lived another 25 years," said Joseph Stiley, 67, a retired engineer living in Montana. "I got to see my children grow up, my grandchildren. I even have a great-grandson."

It could be argued that the Air Florida crash ushered in an era of instantaneous you-are-there news coverage. Local television crews recorded nearly every moment of the rescue. Almost immediately, the chilling images went worldwide, to be repeated for years to come.

Footage of Skutnik -- a federal employee on his way home from work who swam out to rescue a drowning stranger -- stuck in the public imagination. Like it or not, he and others were hailed as heroes. At President Ronald Reagan's State of the Union address two weeks later, Skutnik, seated beside Nancy Reagan, was singled out for his courage, and a tradition was born of presidents using the occasion to recognize ordinary people who had done extraordinary things.

To this day, the rescuers of Flight 90 take a modest view of their actions. "It wasn't me; it was the helicopter," said Don Usher, a former U.S. Park Police pilot who pulled four from the river. The awards and accolades, the attention from television programs and schoolchildren doing papers -- all of that they could have done without, they said. They just wanted to help.

"I remember when we first got down to the riverbank, there was no rescue equipment. It was very quiet -- that eerie quiet when it snows," Skutnik recalled this week. "And out of the quiet, this woman was yelling for help: 'Will somebody please help?' "

The way Skutnik and the others see it, what else could they do?

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