(Originally posted Thursday, January 12, 2012)
The snowstorm of January 13, 1982 will always be remembered for the terrible crash of Air Florida Flight 90.
The death toll was 78, making it Washington’s second worst weather-related disaster; the 1922 Knickerbocker Snowstorm’s death toll of 98 ranks it number one for weather-related disasters.
Ironically, both disasters involved snowstorms rather than the severe weather events — such as floods or hurricanes — that are most frequently responsible for the loss of life.
The January 13 stormstorm was not particularly big, and only four to eight inches accumulated in the Washington area. But the snowfall was heavy enough to accumulate quickly on the wings of Flight 90, ultimately contributing to its crash into the 14th Street Bridge.
Our CWG members discussed the organization of this post and decided to include our own recollections. The first part will discuss the snowstorm and the related weather on January 13, 1982; the second part will discuss the crash; and the third part will be our recollections of the event.
We encourage you to post your own recollections in the comments below.
Light snow started falling in Washington during the early morning hours of January 13 as a fast-moving and moisture-laden storm approached from the south. By noon, moderate-to-heavy snow had spread over the entire area, and by early afternoon the snowfall rate was quite heavy.
There was a one-hour period during the early afternoon on January 13 during which the snow dropped visibility at National Airport to a sixteenth of a mile. Approximately 2-to-3 inches of snow fell during that hour. The snow ended abruptly in the mid-afternoon.
Prior to the storm, an extremely cold Arctic outbreak had spread across the eastern half of the United States, dropping temperatures to -25°F in Chicago and near 0°F in Atlanta. There was also a major freeze in the central Florida citrus groves. At National Airport, the mercury dropped to 2°F.
The snow ended around 3:00 p.m., and Air Florida Flight 90 was the first flight to be cleared for takeoff at National Airport.
The decision to fly was left to the pilot, who chose to take off even though a considerable amount of time had elapsed since the plane’s last de-icing. At 3:45 p.m., the Boeing 737 jet taxied to the airport’s longest runway, which was 7000 feet long.
As Air Florida Flight 90 began to speed down the runway for takeoff, it struggled to gain speed. Once the jet became airborne, it never gained the proper speed and altitude for a safe takeoff.
To complicate matters, the plane’s takeoff was to the north, which requires a hard left turn over the 14th Street bridge to follow the course of the Potomac River.
The jet flew about one mile before it stalled. At 4:01 p.m., it slammed into the top of the 14th Street Bridge, crushing and scattering several vehicles. The 737 jet plunged over the bridge and into the ice-covered Potomac River.
The jet broke into multiple pieces as it shattered through the ice and quickly disappeared into the river. In the icy water, about a dozen surviving passengers bobbed helplessly in the frigid water.
A video summary of the crash from WUSA-9 News, produced in 2007 and posted on YouTube.
A United States Park Police helicopter arrrived minutes later. Its crew lowered a life preserver and began to haul survivors to shore.
One survivor lost her grip on the lifeline and struggled in the water. Lenny Skutnik, an onlooker on the bank of the river, jumped into the icy water and swam out and rescued her.
Another passenger, a man about 50 years old, passed the helicopter’s life line several times to others, saving their lives. When the helicopter went back to get him, he had gone under.
Only five of the 79 on board Flight 90 survived the ordeal. Four commuters on the 14th Street Bridge were also killed. The total death toll was 78.
Ice on the wings of the Air Florida jet was blamed as the cause for the crash.
Don Lipman: I was living in Potomac at the time and remember being released early from work at Ft. Meade, as pretty much the whole government was. Arriving home before the worst of the storm, I then heard — and saw — the horror of it all.
At first I thought all the plane’s passengers were still on board, as the plane was still partially hanging from the bridge. Then, seeing the bodies in the ice and snow-choked river, I was amazed to see a good samaritan swim out to save at least one female survivor who was apparently unable to grasp the flotation gear to save herself.
Although, fortunately, none of my friends or anyone in my immediate family was on that plane, I heard the next day that two good friends of my sister-in-law died in the crash.
Wes Junker: That morning I got up early to drive to Snowshoe. The snow started well before we got to the condo we were staying in. While on the drive we heard on the radio about the accident. Once we got to the condo, that accident pretty much put a damper on trying to ski the day we arrived.
Instead, once we arrived we watched news coverage of the event. My biggest recollection of the coverage was watching or hearing about one of the passengers who kept deferring his chance to get out of the cold waters to save a couple of other passengers. He ended up succumbing to the cold and drowned. He was a true hero.
Steve Tracton: I recall that day for a couple reasons. First, because there was a major snowstorm beginning and I was in a quandary of whether to chance an escape from work (World Weather Building, Camp Springs) before the roads became totally hopeless. Second was the startling news about Air Florida — as a “newsaholic” I had my radio on — and, just 30 minutes later, e news that a Metro train had derailed with many casualties.
I was concerned my wife might have been on that train, but she was not). That clinched my decision to get home — couldn’t have done any work anyway — and luckily did so without mishap. I spent the rest of the day glued tothe TV watching news, including the amazing shots of rescue attempts of Air Florida casualties being fished from the freezing Potomac.
Kevin Ambrose: I was in grade school at the time and Prince William County Schools were closed for snow. I called a friend during the early morning opf January 13 and made arrangements to ice skate near the upper stretches of the Occoquan River on a tributary called Broad Run. The river was less than a mile hike from my house and the snow was just beginning to accumulate over an inch.
When I arrived at the river the ice was surprisingly smooth and thick, and ice skating conditions were excellent.
As the snow piled up to near 6” on the ice we called it quits. I remember hiking home thinking this was one of my best days ever.
As I entered my house my parents yelled for me to quickly come downstairs and watch the live news coverage on TV. I was confused for a moment watching a helicopter hovering in the air over the Potomac River and seeing people bobbing in the water. My parents explained what had happened and I watched the rescue effort. My most vivid memory is watching Lenny Skutnik jump into the river to save a passenger.
Just before sunset, I hiked back to the river. The snow had stopped and everything was quiet. I remember thinking my best day ever had quickly turned into quite a bad day. I was just a kid, but that day is burned into my memory.
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