He was bald, about 50 years old, one of half a dozen survivors clinging to twisted wreckage bobbing in the icy Potomac when the first helicopter arrived. To the copter's two-man Park Police crew he seemed the most alert.
Life vests were dropped, then a flotation ball. The man passed them to the others. On two occasions, the crew recalled last night, he handed away a life line from the hovering machine that could have dragged him to safety.
The helicopter crew--who rescued five people, the only persons who survived from the jetliner--lifted a woman to the riverbank, then dragged three more persons across the ice to safety. Then the life line saved a woman who was trying to swim away from the sinking wreckage, and the helicopter pilot, Donald W. Usher, returned to the scene but the man was gone.
"That guy was amazing," said M. E. (Gene) Windsor, the paramedic aboard the craft. "All I can tell you is I've never seen that kind of guts. It seemed to me like he decided that the women, the men who were bleeding, needed to get out before him, and even as he was going under he stuck to his decision and helped them get out."
"Gene and I were talking as we went back over," said Usher, who flew helicopter combat missions in Vietnam, "and we said even if he was under and we could see him we were going to get him. Man, that was bravery."
But there was no trace of the man, whose identity could not be learned last night.
Usher and Windsor flew to the crash site from the Anacostia Naval Annex in their seven-seat Bell Jet Ranger helicopter, designated Eagle One by the Park Police. They arrived at the scene within six minutes and could see six people waving, screaming and struggling to stay afloat on the broken fuselage of the 737 Air Florida jetliner. After dropping floating balls and life vests, Usher lowered the craft so that Windsor could reach the survivors with a 30-foot rope.
"At first they didn't understand what to do with the rope," Windsor, the paramedic, said. "I guess they were in shock. They just wanted to hold on to it."
Windsor gestured for nearly a minute, he said, before the bald man helped a woman slide the rope around her body. The helicopter then rose and, with the woman dangling below, carried her to the river bank where ambulances were waiting.
The copter went back and this time the bald man helped three other survivors into the rope loop. The helicopter could not ascend with that big a load, Windsor said, so Usher flew forward, slowly dragging them across the cracked ice to the river bank. One of the three lost her grip but was rescued by aman who dove into the water.
When the helicopter went back the bald man was still afloat and he pointed to a woman swimming away from the wreckage. That woman tried to hold onto the rope as the helicopter flew toward shore, dragging her, Windsor said, but couldn't. Usher dipped the helicopter's landing skids into the water and Windsor pulled the woman onto the skids where she rode to shore.
Then the helicopter returned to the river. "We looked in the water, in the wreck, everywhere," said Windsor, "but he was gone. You can't stay in that cold water for too long. Whoever he was the people who were saved owe their lives to him."