McKinley Maggette had been stuck in Wednesday's traffic jam on the 14th Street bridge for nearly an hour and a half when there came an incredible roar.
"The strange thing was I couldn't see it," said Maggette, a housekeeper who was heading home from his hospital job in Northern Virginia when the Air Florida 737 crashed and killed 78 persons. "I couldn't see anything. Then I saw it coming up over the bridge. It was like it came out of the water."
In an instant, it was over. Maggette sat as a passenger in his friend's 1973 Thunderbird and watched as the rear wheels of the failing jet hit the guard rail and its tail flattened or sheared the roofs from four cars only a few feet in front of him. Four occupants who doubtless had also heard the incredible roar were killed. Four others were injured.
"The plane shattered like a piece of glass when it hit the water," he said. "It went down nose first. When it hit the ice it sounded like a giant pane of glass breaking, like a big rock had been thrown through a giant piece of glass."
The bridge quickly filled with screaming motorists who watched rescuers save the few passengers who escaped the plane, the same scene others watched that afternoon and evening on film, again and again. It was from those replays that Washington-area people realized that relatives and friends, who had gone off to work earlier that day and happened to get stuck in the same blinding snowstorm with McKinley Maggette, would not be coming home again that night.
Ora D. Gray was shoveling the snow from the front of her home at 505 21st St. NE when she heard neighbors talking about something terrible that had just happened. She was finished working anyway, so she went inside and switched on the downstairs television.
"I spotted this little car--and I know there's 15 million of them--but I kept saying, 'That looks like her car.' I just wanted to say, 'That looks like her car.' I just watched it all afternoon."
Ora Gray was talking about Mariella Spriggs, 27, the daughter of an old family friend who had lived with Gray for three years. It was not until 10:30 p.m.--after Gray had called relatives and friends and told them also to turn on their TV sets to see if the smashed Mustang on the 14th Street bridge looked familiar--that a D.C. policeman came to her door and announced that Mariella had been killed.
The families of at least two others killed or seriously injured in their autos on the bridge first learned that, say, a husband or a daughter was in the accident from watching television. These people, too, watched replays again and again as they awaited formal notification, which did not come for hours.
"Oh, my God," said Peggy Saunders to her daughter-in-law Susan, when she heard that the plane had hit autos on the 14th Street bridge.
"I won't worry until 7," said Susan. I'll give him to 7. If he's not home by 7. . . " Shortly after 7 p.m. the women saw Michael Saunders, a 33-year-old Air Force lieutenant from Oxon Hill who later died, being carried by stretcher to an ambulance from his smashed car.
Without benefit of television, those on the bridge saw the tragedy only once. "One guy got out, looked around and passed out," recalled Thomas Hawkins, chief of Arlington County's rescue team. "Another woman passed out from the shock also."
"Some of the cars were flat, some were without roofs, others were spun around," said Capt. Theodore Kramer, who was in charge of the three squads from the District. "It looked like the plane just sliced the top of the cars. On others, it looked like it pancaked on top of them."
What Maggette remembers most about the crash was the roar. When the plane hit the bridge it flipped and landed on its back, its nose pointing back toward National Airport, said Magette.
"I saw one guy . . . he was laying on his back with his eyes open. His arms were spread, his head was in the water, the water was red. He was bleeding from the head." The people on the banks were now screaming for blankets, rope and a two-way radio. No one had one.
Maggette saw people seated in the plane through the tail--a woman, a man and a woman sitting in a row--"looking straight ahead. They weren't moving. Maybe they were frozen from the cold. Maybe they were still in their seatbelts. It was incredible."
In 20 minutes, rescue squads had arrived on the bridge. They pried pieces of metal from cars that had been flattened in order to free those trapped inside. The flatbed truck was the only vehicle turned on its side, but cars surrounding it were spun around by the impact.
It was this grisly scene that led friends of Jeanette Bigelow to begin calling her parents at their Seat Pleasant home, said a neighbor who talked with them. The blue Cougar on the TV screen looked much like Jeanette's. When her mother switched on the television, the neighbor said, she did indeed recognize her daughter's car.
They were soon on the way to National Hospital for Orthopaedics and Rehabilitation in Arlington, where her daughter was being treated for face and scalp lacerations. She is now in satisfactory condition.
Also killed on the bridge was Joe Nathan Pringle, 28, of Southeast Washington, a mechanic for the motor pool at Arlington Cemetery, and Ray Bowles, 46, of Cockeysville, Md., who died later at George Washington Hospital. Three others--Billy Thompson and Alfred Jackson of the District and Marion Grant of Hyattsville--were treated and released.
Like many Washington-area workers, Michael Saunders had been sent home from work early Wednesday because of the storm..
"Come on home, let's have a snowball fight," his wife Susan had told him when he had called to say he'd be working all day. "Just because you work for the federal government is no reason why you can't take off early and take a holiday." Saunders took off early and also took an unusual route home.