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?
Roger Olian looks back on what he did and chuckles. Then a sheet-metal foreman at St. Elizabeths Hospital, he was the first to try to reach the few survivors clinging to part of the plane's tail section in the 29-degree water. As other people on the riverbank held one end of a makeshift rope fashioned of battery cables, scarves and pantyhose, Olian took the other end and set out toward the screams. Rescue workers had not yet arrived.
"I was stupid," said Olian, now 60, of Arlington. "I had all these keys in my pocket. I had five pounds of keys. I didn't even think to take them out. "
He did not think at all before acting, he said. He just knew he could not stand idly on the shore watching people drown or freeze to death.
"You could see them out there, and they were helpless," he said. "They were in real bad shape, and there wasn't a blessed thing you could do. The bridge was 40 feet up. There was no way they were going to get up on the bridge. Everything was covered with snow. It was just, like, hopeless."
The water "wasn't like cold, it was like an electric shock." He slid across big sheets of ice, dropping at intervals into the water. He thought he could at least let the crash victims know that someone had heard them.
"At some point, I thought that's the best-case scenario, if it gave them some hope," he said.
Olian was pulled back to shore when the police helicopter arrived. He was in the water nearly 20 minutes and got within 10 feet of the wreckage. Later, survivors said it had encouraged them to see him coming.
"Actually, I would just as soon they forget my part in it, but the story is worth seeing and hearing about," he said. "Even though it was a tragedy, even though so many people were killed, when you look back on it, you see more than just the tragedy. You see the triumph part of it."
What Park Police pilot Don Usher remembers most was "the impossibly horrible weather." Flying conditions in the snowstorm were poor, with only a quarter-mile of visibility. Usher chose an overland approach rather than the usual river route in case he had to land.
When he and medic Gene Windsor arrived, the survivors had been in the water for 15 minutes, he said. There was no time to waste.
"The biggest challenge we had was that they were hypothermic and injured," said Usher, now 56 and superintendent of the U.S. Park Police Training Academy in Brunswick, Ga. "Some of them could help themselves; some could not."
Of the five survivors, the first two people were picked up and deposited on the shore. Racing against time, Usher tried to drag the other three to safety, but two could not hold on to the rescue line. One woman, the only one in a life jacket, dropped into open water. Another seemed to be slipping into shock.
As Windsor saw that someone -- he at first thought Skutnik was a firefighter -- had rescued the second woman, the helicopter turned toward the other. Windsor ended up climbing out onto the skids and pulling her up, as the aircraft dipped perilously into the water.
Usher minimizes the risks he and Windsor took. "Other pilots have done things as technical, if not more technical," he said this week.
"You do what you have to do."
Skutnik, now 53, still lives in the same townhouse with his wife, Linda, and still works at the Congressional Budget Office, where he is a printing and distribution assistant.
A publicity-shy man whose good nature was tested in the frenetic days after the disaster, Skutnik never was comfortable with the hero label. He felt that way the first night, when he appeared, exhausted, on ABC's "Nightline," and the next morning, when he awoke to find reporters waiting outside.
As for heroes, Skutnik says he can name a few -- war veterans, police officers, people who coach kids' ball teams, a fertility doctor, a local young woman just killed in a car crash who was "a great big sister" to her younger siblings.
"Those people are the real heroes," he said.
Whenever he watches a video clip of that day, usually in the presence of a reporter, he cracks jokes. "I looked like Burt Reynolds!" he said, noting his dark-brown hair and mustache, now gray.
That afternoon, he was just one of the helpless witnesses on the shore, watching with dread as crash victim Priscilla Tirado failed to grasp the rescue line from the helicopter.
"It was just too much to take," he said. "When she let go that last time, I was taking my boots and coat off. It was like a bolt of lightning or something hit me -- 'You've got to go get her.' "
And so he did. He swam the 30 feet to Tirado, grabbed her and "push-stroked" her to safety. Only later did he find out his every move had been taped and that he would be asked to talk about what he did, and why, for the rest of his life.
"I guess I look at it this way," he said. "I was put to the test, and I reacted."