The first word came Wednesday at 4:04 p.m. when Evelyne D. White of Arlington heard the news on her citizens band radio, punched 911 on her telephone and told police: "A plane crash, on 14th Street bridge."
Arlington communications technician Richard Singer quickly dialed the fire officials at National Airport. They were not sure a plane had gone down; the air traffic controllers in the tower knew only that Air Florida Flight 90 was not visible on their radar screen.
Eleven more minutes ticked off before an air traffic controller called the U.S. Park Police. By 4:20, a blue-and-white helicopter was pulling five survivors out of the icy Potomac River. One man went down after twice passing the helicopter's lifeline to others; the other 73 persons on board the plane could not be found.
The dramatic rescue by air, water and snow-covered land involved a rapid-fire response from doctors, nurses, policemen and firemen, and an improbable series of heroics by pilots, paramedics and bystanders.
But there also were some inexplicable delays in response, missed signals, occasional squabbles and too few helicopters to fly survivors to the 68 doctors waiting at the area's largest shock trauma unit at the Washington Hospital Center.
Events moved swiftly after Evelyne White placed her call. At 4:05, five Arlington fire trucks and three ambulances began threading their way through the traffic-clogged streets toward the bridge.
They got there 10 minutes later. Arlington Police Cpl. Thomas Hoffman took one look at the twisted metal in the river and radioed back: "There's bodies everywhere."
At about the same time, firefighters from National Airport arrived at the bridge in cars and trucks and began setting up rescue efforts on the Virginia shoreline.
At 4:07, police officials called the D.C. Fire Department, which sent five of the city's 16 ambulances toward the bridge. They were slowed by driving snow and bumper-to-bumper traffic, especially when they converged on the only approach ramp to the northbound span. It was 20 minutes before the first city ambulance reached the bridge.
The passage was equally difficult for the city's only icebreaker boat, the John H. Glenn Jr. moored at the Southwest waterfront. Fire Department officials sent the boat to slice through the frozen Potomac with two divers in a cabin cruiser trailing behind. The boat reached the disabled bridge in 15 minutes, and it took the divers another 45 minutes to suit up.
Twelve miles down river, near Mount Vernon, the Coast Guard cutter Capstan was inching toward the bridge, through sheets of ice, at half its normal speed. It did not reach the scene for nearly three hours.
Soon the entire region was on alert. Five ambulances from Prince George's County headed toward the crash site, as did five more from Montgomery County. Rescue officers from Fairfax County, including 10 wet-suited divers, came to the river with small boats. Other emergency vehicles came from Alexandria.
Army officials, who had been notified by the Civil Defense Command Center at 4:05, ordered five Huey helicopters from Fort Belvoir, Va., into the air and put four others on alert.
At the Washington Hospital Center four miles away, doctors learned of the crisis from early radio reports. Despite a direct radio hookup with the D.C. ambulance service and Park Police, no one had called to ask hospital officials to prepare their Medstar shock trauma unit.
Dr. William Fouty, the chief of surgery, phoned a pilot he knew at Park Police to find out what was going on. Then he announced a code 777--the hospital's highest emergency alert.
Soon 39 doctors and dozens of medical aides assembled in the first-floor Medstar unit, behind the double glass doors that lead to one of the hospital's two helipads.
They divided into 10-member surgical teams and assembled around the six intensive care beds--each bed surrounded by advanced medical equipment. Another 29 doctors gathered in the emergency room next door. And they waited.
Dr. Richard A. Schwartz, chief of medicine at Arlington's National Hospital for Orthopaedics and Rehabilitation, was driving home through Rosslyn in his BMW when he heard the news on the radio. He picked up his portable telephone, called the hospital, and then persuaded a tractor-trailer truck to block traffic until he could make a U-turn and head back.
When Schwartz arrived, the hospital staff was already on code yellow alert, its highest state of readiness. The lobby was cleared to make room for the incoming patients, the emergency room was ready and more than 30 doctors were standing by.
By this time, pilot Donald Usher and paramedic Gene Windsor were hovering low over the Potomac in their chopper, Eagle One. Usher quickly radioed back that the space between the two bridge spans was too narrow for more than one helicopter to maneuver.
Windsor dropped a lifeline to Pat Felch, who was bobbing in the water below. Felch grabbed on and the copter ferried her to the Virginia shore. There she was picked up by an Army helicopter, which had just touched down, and flown to the Medstar unit at the Hospital Center.
Despite fears that a spark from his copter might ignite the jet fuel coating the ice below, Usher dipped his craft into the water as Windsor edged onto the slick rudder to aid another victim. But this time there was no helicopter waiting on the shore. Usher had to deposit the victim and head back for the other survivors.
The veteran pilot picked up three more victims, then hovered over the river and looked for further signs of life. There were none.
With the other four Army helicopters still heading for the crash site, rescue officials had no choice but to carry the four victims into a waiting ambulance. One woman, who had sat in an empty Metrobus until the ambulance was ready, then was rushed with the others down Shirley Highway to National Orthopaedics.
By now the five D.C. ambulances had pulled onto the northbound span of the bridge above, where Arlington rescuers were freeing two injured men from their mangled cars. The two area men, Ray Bowles and Michael Saunders, were rushed by ambulance to George Washington University Hospital, where they died Thursday.
At 4:40, 36 minutes after Evelyne White's call, Metro officials called a D.C. Fire Department command post and said they needed several ambulances. A subway train had just derailed beneath the Mall.
The officials had already committed five of their 16 ambulances to the plane crash. They decided to send just two vehicles to the subway crash. If necessary, they reasoned, they could bring in one or two more from the bridge, but Prince George's and Montgomery ambulances were already on the way to the subway station. More than a dozen injured riders would be taken to Washington Hospital Center.
In the hospital's Medstar unit, meanwhile, confusion was widespread. At first, the waiting doctors were told by Park Police that 40 bodies had been pulled from the river, and that two helicopters with three or four victims were on the way.
"There was nobody in charge," one hospital official said later. "We kept trying to call different places to find out what was coming."
One hospital official could think of little but a failed practice drill at Dulles Airport on Sept. 22, when the bus carrying the supposed victims got lost and never made it to the hospital.
When the Army copter landed on the hospital's helipad at 5:05, three medical aides carried Pat Felch into Medstar. Head nurse Heidi Sigmon pumped heated fluid into her near-frozen body through an intravenous tube. Felch needed surgery for multiple fractures, a collapsed lung and internal burns from inhaling too much jet fuel.
There was only one surgical bed in the Medstar unit, so doctors carried Felch to a fourth-floor operating room, saving the bed for the other victims they expected. None arrived.
Doctors at National Orthopaedics also were waiting for the 25 patients that Arlington fire officials had said were on the way. At 5 p.m., paramedics carried five injured patients into the lobby, where they were screened by a surgical team.
Priscilla Tirado was one of the first to be carried into the emergency room. Her temperature had fallen to 81 degrees, and she was bundled in a heated blanket and given warm oxygen to breathe while doctors pumped warm water into her abdomen for two hours.
As darkness and cold descended on the crash site, the chances of finding more survivors dimmed. Still, Arlington rescuers, who had set up a command post on the bridge, were surprised when D.C. fire officials ordered them to leave at 6 p.m.
"They told us to go home, so we did," said Arlington Fire Chief Thomas M. Hawkins. "My guys were pretty frustrated."
At 11 p.m., Arlington police chief William K. Stover saw a shivering woman standing by the bridge railing. She had been driving across the bridge when the plane crashed and, apparently in shock, abandoned her car and stood there unnoticed for the next seven hours. Stover took her to a warm office in Crystal City.
"There was so much going on," said police spokesman Tom Bell, "no one had noticed her standing there."
Washington Post staff writers Michael Isikoff and Joseph E. Bouchard also contributed to this story.