From the moment the Air Florida 737 jet began to accelerate on Runway 36, Joseph Stiley had a feeling that something was wrong. "I knew we weren't going to make it," said Stiley, one of the few survivors of the crash.
"I'm a commercial and instrument pilot . . . . I had a good indication that things weren't going right when we started down the runway. They were de-icing the plane continuously before take-off . We didn't climb like a normal 737 departure . . . we were too low.
Last night Stiley, a 42-year-old Alexandria business executive who had been on his way to Tampa on business, was in a hospital bed with two fractured legs at Arlington's National Orthopaedic & Rehabilitation Hospital. Lying on his back, a cast on each leg, a trickle of blood visible from under his wrist watch, television lights shining into his battered face, Stiley recounted the horror as seen from seat 18C, the left side of the Florida-bound jet.
"I knew we did not have the takeoff speed we needed . . . I knew we were not going to make it . . . They had de-iced the plane several times, two or three times before we took off." Stiley said he believed the pilot may have attempted to abort the flight at one point.
"It was icing up very heavily . . . . The pilot tried to turn the airplane . . . . It might have been just from the ice . . . . We went up and got a fairly decent angle, then stalled and we went down.
Stiley, an employe of General Telephone and Electronics in McLean, said he turned to his secretary who was seated next to him and said "We're not going to make it."
"We were only in the air 20 or 30 seconds. I knew we were too low and were going to hit something . . . . I knew the bridge was out there. . . . It didn't climb like a normal 737.
"I remember the first impact and a moment later the second," said Stiley. "I went unconscious for a moment. I think the water revived me . . . the biggest problem was remembering to take off the stupid seatbelt."
"I think the airplane flipped . . . . I suspect the flipping minimized the impact."
He heard a man screaming that he couldn't get his seatbelt off. "But I couldn't do anything."
Dressed in a hospital gown, yellow blankets tucked up around his hips, Stiley spoke in a steady, clear voice. He remembered one thought as the plane hit the bridge: "I figured I had taken one plane too many."
Despite his confusion, Stiley said he climbed out of the debris. "I saw a hole in the plane two rows up . . . pulled up there somehow." Somehow he said he got hold of what he thinks was the tail of the plane.
"I saw a helicopter. I saw three gals in the water. I was trying to hold two gals and me but there were ice chunks, they were a problem. I couldn't hold on to anyone. Then one guy on the bank tried to swim out with a rope. A lot of people were trying to throw ropes to us from the bridge, but we couldn't move. Our only chance was to hold on. Everyone there had broken bones. My legs are both crunched.
" . . . By the time we saw the helicopter we were literally freezing. The helicopter got one fellow out and carried him off. There were five of us still out there on the other side of the wreckage. The girl beside me was in pretty bad shape. I held on to the rope and tried to drag two gals, but ice blocks knocked them off. A few people I could see held on to the tail secton . . . . "
Asked how long he was in the water, Stiley glanced at his watch announced that it was still running and estimated he'd spent "about one half hour in the water."
"My secretary's name is Pat Felch, does anyone know where she is?" Felch, who lives in Herndon, he recalled, was trying to hold on. "She was conscious . . . bleeding on the forehead."
Officials at the Washington Hospital Center said last night that she was in serious, but stable condition with broken arms and legs, chest and head injuries and hypothermia.
Stiley was put in an ambulance and taken to the hospital in Arlington, the closest hospital to the disaster scene.
"I feel fortunate to be here," said Stiley, who said he was still trying to reach family and friends. "I thought we would freeze to death." Stiley said he was in shirtsleeves when the plane went down. The plane had been waiting an hour before it was cleared for takeoff.
Said Stiley: "It was hot inside."