It was snowing on the 14th Street Bridge and traffic had ground to a standstill as thousands of federal workers and other rush-hour commuters tried to get home ahead of a major storm.
With an awful metallic crack, a blue-and-white jet swept out of the swirling snow at 4 p.m., smacked against one of the bridge's spans, sheared through five cars like a machete, ripped through 50 feet of guard rail and plunged nose first into the frozen Potomac River.
For a brief moment the plane, its fuselage ripped open like a jagged tin can, floated in the opening it had punched in the inch-thick ice, then sank out of view with only its tail visible. Clinging to whatever pieces of Air Florida Flight 90 that protruded above the water were a half-dozen passengers.
Within half an hour, as dusk descended, the bridge and the immediate area near the Virgina shore were transformed into a scene of grim chaos as helicopters trailed lifelines, firemen struggled in rubber rafts, and rescue workers on the banks extended ladders over the ice, racing against time to pull survivors from the frigid river. There were scenes of pitiful suffering and moments of heroism.
One survivor, a brown-haired woman in a red blouse who had been clinging to the tail of the jet, lost her grasp on a white life ring suspended from a helicopter and slid back into the ice-choked river. For several minutes she lay belly up on a partially submerged cake of ice, feebly paddling for shore. Helicopter pilots said her eyes apparently were blinded by jet fuel. The helicopter dropped the ring in front of her again. She clutched it but was too weak to hang on.
Her head sank below the surface of the river.Just when she seemed to be drowning, Lenny Skutnik, 28, drawn to the crash after crossing the bridge on his way home from work, flung himself from the bank into the water and towed her in.
"I felt so helpless," said Skutnik, who works for the Congressional Budget Office. "She was screaming 'Would somebody please help me!' It looked like she had passed out. I jerked off my boots and coat and jumped in the water." If not for Skutnik's valor, firemen said later, the woman might have died.
There was also the horror of rescue attempts that failed. "I saw a man caught under the ice trying frantically to get out, but by the time the ice was broken, he was already dead," said Maj. Harold Anderson, an official with the Salvation Army whose volunteers helped with the rescue effort.
By late evening, with only eight survivors rescued from the river and the bridge, relatives and friends of victims gathered in an anxious vigil at the Crystal City Marriott Hotel, waiting to find out officially who had been killed.
Janet Gilman was among those waiting at the hotel. She'd been grocery shopping when she heard about the crash. She rushed to the Marriott and badgered Air Florida officials until they confirmed her husband was on the flight. A friend described her: "Jan's not herself. She's pretty calm, but also pretty convinced her husband is dead. I gave her some sherry."
One survivor of the crash, Priscilla Tirado, 22, was listed in critical condition at National Orthopedic & Rehabilitation Hospital in Arlington. Her two-month old son Jason and her husband, 25-year-old Jose Tirado, were believed among the dead.
Rescue workers halted their search for survivors at 9:15 p.m., according to Major Harold Anderson, an official with the Salvation Army whose volunteers helped with rescue operations.
"The assumption by the rescue workers is that they the passengers are strapped to their seats in the plane," Anderson said. "As far as I know they've done all they can do until morning."
Through the early evening, the cordoned-off bridge and the nearby Virginia shore appeared as a grim tableau of disaster. Red lights flashed on cold, discouraged faces, and the harsh glare of spotlights fell across the ice floes and the remains of the sunken plane. The rescue workers knew that within a half-hour of the crash the chances for survival in the icy water were nil. Ambulances were turned away at 5:30 p.m.
Immediately after the crash, seat cushions, hats, luggage, twisted chunks of metal and bodies were scattered on the ice and floating on the water. On the bridge, a large, crane-equipped truck that had been clipped by the landing gear of the jet was tipped on its side. At least five bodies and three injured commuters were pulled from the mangled cars. News cameramen found some scenes too gruesome for television, concentrating instead on bloody leather mittens protruding from the wreckage.
Survivors pulled from the water were wrapped in blankets and rushed to three area hospitals. Members of the Arlington Rescue Squad, dressed in yellow slickers, hauled one body up an embankment on a sled, as workers in four rubber boats probed the ice with steel pointed pikes.
Within a half-hour of the crash, about 25 bodies had been recovered from the river, according to John Gamble, a volunteer rescue worker from Arlington: "It was an absolutely ghastly sight," he said.
Near the bridge, rescue vehicles had to thread their way through the snarled traffic, which had begun backing up around 2 p.m. when federal workers were released early to avoid an expected heavy snow storm. Some ambulances speeding to hospitals from the crash scene drove on the sidewalk by the White House. Rescue workers also had to contend with hordes of curious onlookers. At one point, a D.C. policemen held a megaphone to his mouth and shouted, "Everyone turn around and go back into Washington. If you don't turn back you'll be arrested."
As spotlights and cranes and a temporary morgue were set up on the bridge, survivors and firemen trickled into area hospitals. Seven patients, some with shattered limbs, all suffering from hypothermia, were taken to National Orthopaedic & Rehabilitation Hospital.. Five had been sitting in traffic on the bridge when the crash occurred. The hospital was notified to make room for 10 bodies in the morgue.
A stewardess in the rear jump seat of the Air Florida jet, Kelly Duncan, told Dr. Richard Schwartz, director of medical disaster at the hospital, that "the plane started to shake, the next thing she knew she was in the water."
By 6 p.m., an ice-breaker had arrived on the scene of the wreckage. Divers in black wetsuits had managed to smash a hole in the ice surrounding the submerged aircraft and were trying to break through the fuselage. There was no sign of any crash victims -- alive or dead.
The Red Cross called for blood donations. At 6:45 a helicopter carrying an emergency medical team from the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda landed on the bridge with six surgeons and seven nurses trained in emergency care. Emergency vehicles brought more blankets and coffee. Four ambulances arrived from St. Elizabeths to pick up bodies.
At St. Augustine's Church at 6th and M Streets SW, a call-in center for victims' relatives was set up at the request of harbor police. The church took calls long before a passenger list was available. There was good news for Terry Colley, 22, of Alexandria who stood in tears in the church, afraid that her boyfriend, Fleet Dalby, was aboard the Air Florida flight.
"What the hell are you doing there?" the relieved woman yelled at her boyfriend when she reached him at home in Alexandria. Colley had been booked on a different flight that had been canceled.