After a flurry of accolades -- including a standing ovation from Congress during President Reagan's State of the Union speech, free tickects to Redskins games, 2,000 fan letters and several awards for heroism -- Martin Leonard Skutnik III's life is almost back to normal.
He is better known to the world as Lenny Skutnik, the man who captured a nation's heart when he lept into the icy Potomac to help rescue survivors of the tragic Air Florida crash. He still works as an office services assistant in the Congressional Budget Office. And he still rents a townhouse in Lorton where he lives with his wife and two sons, aged 17 months and 9 years.
But these days, as the first anniversary of the Jan. 13 crash which killed 78 people approaches, Skutnik's telephone rings with calls from reporters, some as far away as London, invariably posing the same questions: What was it like to be the hero that grim day? What made him do it?
"People have tried to pry my motives out of me all year, but the answer is pretty simple, really," Skutnik said in a recent interview. "I'm an average person who saw somebody in trouble and helped out.
"That's all it was. That was the real reward."
Skutnik, a 29-year-old native of Biloxi, Miss., was one of hundreds of commuters drawn to the banks of the Potomac after Air Florida Flight 90 crashed into the 14th Street Bridge that Wednesday afternoon. By the time Skutnik, on his way home, arrived at the scene, several passengers were clinging to the partially submerged wreckage of the plane, waiting for rescue from a helicopetr hovering above.
One of the surviviors, Priscilla Tirado, slipped her arm through a white life ring suspended from the helicopter, but lost her grip and slid back into the river. The helicopter dropped the ring to her again, but she was too weak to get a hold.
As television cameras recorded the moment, Skutnik shucked his cowboy boots and jacket and entered the water to save Tirado.
An avid outdoorsman who had been a swimmer all his life in Mississippi, Michigan and Hawaii, but who had never taken a lifesaving course, Skutnik swam about 20 feet and towed and pushed Tirado ashore. Tirado's husband and nine-week-old son perished in the crash. Four other survivors were rescued by the helicopter, but a sixth, who authorities have never officially identified, apparently drowned.
"I'm not sure there was anything real special about what I did, except maybe for the fact that the cameras were there right after the accident to see the whole thing," said Skutnik, whose watch and cap were swept away in the ice-choked river.
"I had no second thoughts about it, though."
Skutnik and Tirado, who is now living in Florida, write to each other "every now and then, maybe once or twice a month," he said. "We're friends."