BY THE TIME you read this, Roger Olian should have been reimbursed his $35. What $35? Why, the $35 he had to pay the towing company the morning of Jan. 14 to give him back his Datsun pickup truck. No cash, no car. Tough cookies, those towing companies, but not entirely heartless, as shall be noted.
You see, Mr. Olian had impulsively abandoned his car in the breakdown lane just off the southbound 14th Street Bridge the afternoon before, seconds after he saw Air Florida Flight 90 crash into the northbound lane of the bridge. "I just had to go for it," he said the other day, and within five minutes of the crash, Mr. Olian--hat, coat, scarf and steel-toed work boots--was swimming toward the wreckage with a makeshift line for the survivors. "Funny how your priorities change," he said. "Until I saw that wreckage my main worry was running out of gas." Well, Mr. Olian was "in the water swimming around" for about 25 minutes before he himself was rescued by helicopter, half-drowned and suffering from severe hypothermia, and taken to the hospital. He sort of forgot about the car, and when he was ready to go home that night, wearing a hospital gown and wrapped in a blanket and carrying his clothes in a plastic bag, a policeman offered him a ride.
Very early the next morning, Mr. Olian and his wife, Donna, returned to the bridge, where a policeman told him his car had just been towed, and gave him the location of the towing company in Arlington. "Fifty bucks," said the man at the towing company. But the man was impressed when he learned that Mr. Olian had left his car to fight the ice and freezing waters of the Potomac, and said he'd make it 40. Now, Mr. Olian and his wife had just $37 between them and a virtually dry gas tank, so the man at the towing company, after taking the Olians' $37 gave them $2 back for gas, and the Olians went home, via the gas station. It was a "snow day," you remember. Otherwise the 34-year-old Mr. Olian would have gone to his job in the sheet metal shop at St. Elizabeths Hospital, where he has worked for the last six years.
Eventually the story of Mr. Olian's red Datsun and his $35 towing bill came to the attention of a policeman in Virginia, who told it to Thomas Tague, president of the Fraternal Order of Police. They didn't think it was quite right. So last night Mr. Olian, who was described in a letter on these pages last week as "an unsung hero," a title Mr. Olian disclaims in a letter today, was made an honorary member of the lodge--and given a check for $35. Happy ending --but you wonder: did everone who left a car at the bridge that day get nicked $50?