For long, helpless hours people stared blankly at the river as a small flotilla of boats nudged through the ice above the sunken plane.
On the snowy bank between two spans of the 14th Street bridge, police in orange slickers, Red Cross workers and soldiers in olive drab stamped their feet and blew on their hands. A District police official shuttling between the river bank and the bridge paused repeatedly to brief reporters, his voice drowned out by the shattering roar of jets tracing and retracing the path of Air Florida Flight 90.
On the day after Washington's worst air disaster, military and police recovery crews were frustrated in their tasks by ice, cold weather, and murky water. Little happened. The bodies of an infant and woman were found beneath the ice and recovered early in the morning. In midafternoon divers in orange diving suits slipped into the water and, unable to see, groped along the jagged edges of the ruptured plane, "searching by feel."
Just before 3 p.m. four relatives of passengers believed to be entombed in the plane were escorted by police to the bridge. For five minutes they stood at the rope police had strung across the 50-foot gap smashed through the retaining wall by the Boeing 737 jet before it plunged into the river.
"Now I know it's all over, now I know she's not a survivor," said Larry Nichols, 36, whose wife, Air Florida stewardess Marilyn Nichols, died in the crash. "Everything gives you hope, then you realize there's no hope. You're up and you're down, and it still hasn't hit me yet.
Nichols said his wife, who had been a stewardess for Air Florida for 2 1/2 years, had learned over Christmas that she was pregnant. "She gave her mom and dad a doll to announce the baby," he said. "We went to our first obstetrics exam Tuesday and we discussed whether she should continue to fly. So we said, 'Let's see how you like this trip and if you don't like it, we'll tell them you're pregnant and going off line.' "
Nichols said that he and his wife had never talked about the possibility of a crash. "But every day it was a ritual," he said "I'd always kiss her goodbye and tell her to come home safely. I always had the faith she would. I want her body out. I want it back in Florida with her folks. My goal now is to get her out from under that frozen river and back to sunshine."
By late afternoon, heavy snow was falling and a mean wind blew off the river, turning a gray day even more bitter. The elements that may have caused the crash hampered the effort to retrieve its victims. Tracks cut through the ice by boats in the first hours of the frantic rescue attempts Wednesday were freezing over like scar tissue. At 5 p.m. recovery teams abandoned their efforts for the night.
Police had barricaded the shore area around the crash site with red slat fencing. Soldiers of Engineering Company 902 from Fort Belvoir, who had arrived in special trucks that transform into pontoon bridges, bedded down for the night in tents.
All day the spans of the 14th street bridge were empty. Police had erected barricades at both ends of the bridge and sat in patrol cars warning pedestrians away. A road had been marked with orange pylons leading from George Washington Parkway toward the river into the main encampment.
Politicians came and went,, unable to do more than any other onlookers. For a few moments their black limousines were parked incongruously among the television vans and the police cruisers: Transportation Secretary Drew Lewis, Virginia Gov. John N. Dalton, his successor, Charles S. Robb, Rep. Stan Parris (R-Va.), Sen. John Warner (R-Va.)--men who exercise power.
But yesterday the rules had been changed. Pedestrians tramped along highways and taxis stopped for passengers in the middle of high-speed thoroughfares. Police on bullhorns barked at the thin stream of people who came throughout the day with cameras and binoculars.
There was little spectators could see. The helicopters that had made daring rescues the day before left before noon. The Coast Guard Cutter Capstan wheeled slowly in the icy river. A red work boat called the John Glenn combed the area underneath the span that the plane had clipped. A small vessel from the Army Corps of Engineers cleared ice from above the sunken plane with a yellow scoop, forming a pool of dark cold water. A police launch idled at a distance. From the shore the tail which had protruded above the water immediately after the crash was no longer visible. Shards of greenish debris rested on the ice.
From the bridge a giant blue crane lowered a cage of orange-suited divers onto a barge near the pilings of the bridge.
Some of the spectators were drawn by something more than idle curiosity.
"I knew somebody on the flight, Dr. William Liddle," said Karen Vargo, a 23-year old woman from Alexandria. "He was my pediatrician. I felt so sorry for the people but knowing somebody, it really hits home. He had a family, a wife, two or three kids. He took care of me when I was a little infant to when I was fully grown."