In that brief terrible interlude, after Air Florida Flight 90 punched into the frozen river and before the last person died, five men discovered themselves heroes.
Survivors clung to wreckage with shattered arms and legs, screaming for help as the ice-choked Potomac leeched their strength.
As others watched helplessly, two men dived into the Potomac. "I was not going to turn my back on those poor suckers," Roger Olian recalls. He struggled in the water for 20 minutes and nearly drowned trying to reach the survivors. The other man, Lenny Skutnik, saved a drowning woman. "I just did it," Skutnik explained later.
A U.S. Park Police helicopter took off into a blinding snowstorm 14 minutes after the crash. Pilot Don Usher and paramedic Gene Windsor could see nothing straight ahead as they flew. "We had never flown in anything that nasty," Windsor says. They could only see if they looked down. They found the Southwest Freeway and followed it to the 14th Street bridge. There, hovering inches above the river, they saved four lives.
The last hero--an Air Florida passenger whose identity is still uncertain--grabbed a helicopter rescue line that had been dropped for him and helped pass it to other survivors.
When the helicopter finally returned for him, he was gone, pulled to his death by twisting, sinking wreckage.
The courage that flared a year ago today in the desperate minutes after the crash was an astonishing, ennobling counterpoint to the death of 78 persons. What's more, much of it was on television. Images and accounts of heroism flashed around the world, touching millions of people.
In the weeks and months after the crash, the four surviving heroes were deluged with commendations, awards and banquets. After a year's time, as the public's memory wanes and their plaques gather dust, the four remain immensely proud of what they discovered inside themselves.
"I gave everything I had. And I still feel good about it," says Olian, echoing feelings of the others.
The mystery hero, the one who died, has not been forgotten.
"I am a Japanese lady. The reason I abruptly write . . . is for the sake of the gentleman who was so noblemined sic that he sacrificed himself to save other people . . . . I believe that his deed was a love so great that will never appear on earth."
So wrote Waka Satoh, a 44-year-old Tokyo fashion designer who sent a check for $10,000 to The Washington Post to erect a monument for the man. The check was returned because the hero has not been officially identified. She has kept the money set aside in a special account, and now says wistfully, "Such a great deed should be a source of pride to the United States."
Arland D. Williams, a bank examiner for the Federal Reserve Bank in Atlanta, is the "most probable" candidate, according to District of Columbia police. Williams was the only passenger to die by drowning. "The trauma for all the other victims was of such a severe nature that they probably could not have been that unknown hero," says Lt. William Ritchie of the homicide squad.
Through no effort or fault of their own, the four heroes who survived have not shared equally in adulation. They have all learned, they say, that the public's yardstick for heroism is television coverage.
Lenny Skutnik, 29, a father of two who runs errands and delivers mail at the Congressional Budget Office, happened to be on camera when he saved Priscilla Tirado, who was too weak to grasp a rescue line.
Within hours, he was a national celebrity--the designated hero. Two weeks later, he received a standing ovation from Congress while sitting next to Nancy Reagan during the State of the Union Message. For a month, the phone rang so often in Skutnik's house that his wife had to unplug it to change the baby.
Skutnik was given two years' free rent for his Lorton town house and a year's free use of a Honda car. He was sent a dozen watches to replace one he lost in the river. He was flown to Los Angeles to be on "Real People," to Philadelphia for an award from the American Polish Police Assocation, to Chicago to throw out the first ball at a White Sox game, and to New Orleans for the American Achievement Awards, which proclaimed him "a new and instantaneous American hero."
The last year has been "exhausting, frustrating at times. But I don't have any negative feelings," says Skutnik, who has kept his $14,000-a-year government job. "I know it is only temporary. I'm not going to let it change me."
Olian, 35, a sheet metal worker at St. Elizabeths Hospital, was a bystander who jumped into the river before the cameras showed up. Even though he received awards for valor totaling $7,000, not many people know of his gallantry.
With a makeshift rope around his waist, struggling to get past jagged slabs of ice, he managed to swim to within five feet of the survivors. He yelled at them as he swam, exhorting them to hold on, promising that he would save them. He realized in the water, however, that he was getting too cold to save anyone, including himself. Although he never reached them, survivors say Olian's swim gave them hope.
"I wasn't disappointed in myself because I gave everything I had. I guess the only reason I did not die in that river is because the helicopter came," says Olian.
The two men in the helicopter, pilot Usher, 32, and paramedic, Windsor, 42, have been showered with honors ranging from a tax-free $2,000 award for heroism from the Carnegie Foundation to being named "Flight Crew of the Year" by the Helicopter Association International.
"The big point of it all," says Usher, "was being able to sit down and talk with some of the people we saved."
As the most honored hero, Skutnik has done a lot of thinking about the snowy afternoon a year ago:
"Before I came into the picture people were watching TV and screaming at it: 'Why doesn't someone go in and get her?' I did it. I did what they wanted to do. They would have done the same thing."