Bert Hamilton was one of the last ones to board Air Florida's Flight 90 Wednesday afternoon. The 41-year-old purchasing officer had been busy parking his car, and when he reached the plane he took one of the few seats left: 21 D, "as far back as you could go, next to the galley."
That put him a good distance from his seven colleagues from Fairchild Industries who were on the flight. As the plane waited to be cleared for takeoff, Hamilton's boss came back and asked if he wanted to join them.
Hamilton, a Gaithersburg father of a 16-year-old boy and "stepchildren scattered all over the country," decided to stay put--or so he thought.
"There wasn't any warning," he recalls. "We were about two hours late taking off, and then when we got going it seemed like we spent an awful lot of time picking up speed. Then the plane started shaking like it was trying to shake apart . . . it was shaking so bad I looked down to check my seatbelt. The next thing I knew, I was in the water.
"I grabbed ahold of something and just hung on . . . . I started losing my left shoe and I remember that seemed to be a big problem at the time. Strange thing--I could feel it coming off and that was the most important thing in the world. . . . I was thinking my foot would be cold."
Hamilton's seven coworkers and 63 other passengers, as well as four of the plane's crew, died in the crash. Yesterday, Hamilton sat propped up in his bed at Arlington's National Hospital for Orthopaedics and Rehabilitation, piecing together the ordeal that left his face battered, his arm broken, and his body so sore "it feels like like someone held a track meet across it last night."
Doctors at area hospitals said that Hamilton and the four other survivors from the plane were recovering, some faster than others. Two more of the eight persons injured when the jetliner struck cars on the 14th Street bridge died yesterday, raising the death toll from the bridge to four.
Airplane survivor Priscilla Tirado, a 22-year-old American who lives in Spain, was visited by her father at the Arlington hospital yesterday and told that her husband and her2-month-old son had perished in the crash.
Beirne Keefer of Clearwater, Fla., said that his daughter turned to him, said, " 'Daddy, I am very lucky,' and started crying." Keefer said that he cried, too.
Keefer said that his daughter had been occupying a window seat on the plane next to her husband Jose, 24, who was carrying their baby, Jason, in his arms. He said his daughter told him that the plane was shaking immediately after takeoff and that she exchanged glances with her husband and they held hands.
The impact followed, Keefer said his daughter related, and there was "a great white light," then she was swimming for the surface and praying. The next thing she remembers, Keefer said, is waking up in the hospital.
Tirado, one of the most seriously injured of the five survivors from the plane, was listed in good condition in the intensive care unit yesterday afternoon, recovering from hypothermia and a broken leg. A spokesman at the Spanish Embassy in Washington said that Tirado had been traveling with her Spanish-born husband and her infant son. Dr. Richard Schwartz, a spokesman at National Orthopaedics, said that the first words Tirado had said when she regained consciousness yesterday morning were "husband and baby."
Two victims who had been on the bridge, Air Force Lt. Michael Saunders, 33, of Oxon Hill, and Ray Bowles, 46, of Cockeysville, Md., died yesterday at George Washington University Hospital.
Saunders, who was stationed at the Pentagon, had been heading home from work when his small Renault was hit. "My brother has not regained consciousness," said a distraught John Saunders at mid-afternoon yesterday. Less than two hours later, hospital spokesmen announced that Michael Saunders, married and the father of two small children, was dead.
Jeanette Bigelow, of Seat Pleasant, Md., the only other motorist to remain hospitalized last night, had improved enough to be taken from intensive care at the Arlington hospital and placed in a regular room. She was reported to be in good condition.
David Frank, fiance of Pat Felch, the 27-year-old plane passenger from Herndon who survived, said that Felch, who was at Washington Hospital Center, was "looking good. The color is back in her face." Felch, a secretary for General Telephone and Electronics in McLean, was in serious but stable condition with a broken right leg, right wrist and a lung contusion.
All of the plane crash survivors suffered from hypothermia, a sudden, dramatic lowering of body temperature that can be fatal.
"All will survive," said Schwartz of the four plane passengers at National Orthopaedics. "The main problem was the hypothermia. "If any of them had spent any more time in the water they might not have made it."
Air Florida flight attendant Kelly Duncan, 22, the only one of the five-member flight crew who lived, arrived at the National Hospital for Orthopaedics and Rehabilitation with severe hypothermia. Her body temperature had dropped below 90 degrees, so low that it did not register on the thermometer, Schwartz said. Her temperature yesterday was reported within normal range.
The lobbies of the three hospitals that had received survivors from the accident were nearly deserted yesterday, after the crowds that had filled the rooms on Wednesday. Most of the survivors were with their families.
"They've all been reunited. They've sort of drawn into a cocoon for now, I think," said National Orthopaedics spokesman Ed Jenkins.
Joseph Stiley, 42, of Alexandria, who had been a passenger on the plane, was reported to be "doing very well" after surgery on his fractured legs. Dr. Charles Engh said later that Stiley might be out of the hospital in four or five days.
Stiley, a pilot himself, said he was aware as the plane headed down the runway at National Airport that something was wrong. "They were de-icing the aircraft continuously before takeoff ," Stiley said, "and when we went down for the takeoff. . . we were running out of runway and we didn't have the speed. We didn't climb like a normal 737 departure, which is way up in a hurry."
But it was Hamilton, a native of Stephensville, Fla., who had started his job at Fairchild three months ago, who was the most philosophical.
Will he want to fly again?
"I thought about it last night when my wife was here," Hamilton replied. "I don't think I'll want to fly in the snow again. I think airplanes are a whole lot safer than cars. Airplanes are still probably the safest way to travel.
"I'm really thankful to God. He saved me. No one else could."
Also contributing to this article were Washington Post staff writers Ed Bruske and Jura Koncius.