From the bridge, you could see the plane -- part of it anyway. It seemed wedged between ice floes, and nearby what seemed to be miniature men in small rubber boats were poking and fishing and doing whatever you do when the catastrophe all Washington knew would happen, finally happened.

The piece of the plane seemed made of steel and wire. It was ripped open, gray and sheared, and around it all the boats seemed to congregate. There were two big boats and a rubber boat and overhead was a helicopter containing divers who would soon go into the river.

And all around was a Doctor Zhivago landscape: cold, hard cold. The wind blew sleet into the faces of rescue workers and when the helicopters came down, they kicked up miniblizzards with their rotors. The cops yelled and the sirens wailed and under the bridges they laid out the bodies.

Washington had set the clock on this one a long time ago. It was going to happen. It had to happen. There is an airport in what is almost the middle of the city and for years people who thought about it knew that some day a plane would come down in the city. Or in the river. Or on the bridge.

The planes come in so low. They go out so low. On foggy days or rainy days, people who live in certain parts of the city know the planes move in off the river and fly over residential neighborhoods. The noise is awful, but it is not the worst of it. The worst is imagining that suddenly the noise would stop.

This plane hit the bridge. It took a piece of the bridge and then barreled into the water. A man saw two bodies taken from the river. There were many more. They were set out under a portion of the bridge that the police cordoned off. You were not supposed to go there and nobody did. Nobody wanted to.

A din came up from the river. There were men down there and machinery and lights and, after a while, ladders. There was ice in the water. Floes floated in it. The Potomac, so warm and gentle in the summer, looked sinister and mean in the winter night. Men put poles into it and lowered themselves into the river, but it was all too late. What was done, was done.

A woman cop tried to push back some of the spectators. Cars had been stranded on the bridge and the people had come out of them to look into the water and watch the rescue operations. Cops tried to move the people first one way and then another. They tried to clear the bridge of the people and the cars, but the people would come back.

"Get out of here," the woman police officer yelled at the press. "You can't stand here." She was short and pudgy and her voice sounded shrill with tension and suddenly she started to push and swing. She came at some of the people who were standing on the bridge, shoving them and yelling at them and swinging large, weak sweeps of her arms. The crowd moved back, disbanded and then re-formed a little farther down the bridge.

From the bridge, the city twinkled red emergency lights. From the bridge, the city played an awful chorus of sirens. From the bridge the sirens and the lights and the helicopters and the flood lights and the yelling and the screaming and the cold and the snow seemed to meld into something--a vengance. It was like civilization, progress, had turned on the city and the people. A sleek plane that promised to take people to the Florida sun was in the river. The Metro had crashed. The traffic could not move and the helicopters that could do anything, bring troops to the battlefield and tell you the traffic in the morning, were helpless. They hovered and they roared but they could not raise the dead out of the river.

In the Metro, the people were sullen. The subways from Virginia were crowded with people who usually took the bus or took a car, but now could not get across the bridge. From the train window, the world seemed very cold, very confused and somewhat threatening. The subway moved along the river and you could see the lights of emergency vehicles, some on the bridge, some of them fighting traffic to get to it. Lights flashed and sirens wailed but there was no purpose to it anymore. The catastrophe Washington knew would happen had happened. There was no longer any reason to rush.