TOO MANY important questions remain to be answered before meaningful conclusions can be drawn from the hideous crash late yesterday afternoon of an Air Florida Boeing 737 into the frozen Potomac River. But even to those who have witnessed terrible scenes before, the stark horror and-- at the same time --the remarkable heroism displayed on television in this nightmare could not have been more gripping. From the sheared and pancaked vehicles in the blinding snowswirls on the 14th Street Bridge to the victims desperately waving their arms in the icy water below, it was an unbelievable drama.
The rescue efforts by firefighters, helicopter pilots, medical crews and volunteers were especially breathtaking. Helicopter pilots risked their own lives in repeated attempts to pull people from the dark and icy waters. Freezing victims groped for life preservers dropped to them from the air. One rescuer could be seen plunging into the water and swimming out to a flailing body, and somehow dog-paddled with him to a block of ice that had to serve as the shore. Elsewhere crews of men paddled rafts through chunks of ice, in both vain and successful races against the cold of the water and the nightfall.
Today and for some time to come, the authorities will be working as they do in these tragedies to solve its various riddles: what mechanical difficulties there may have been, why airplanes should take off in those weather conditions, what was happening in the tower, and so on. Still others will seize on this incident, without waiting for all the facts to become known, to make easy points about National Airport, the air controllers, government leave policies, road conditions, or what have you. But for the moment, one response is overriding: compassion for the victims, honor to those who tried to help them.