Offering a Lifeline of Hope to Others

A view of the 14th Street Bridge looking toward Washington, DC from Virginia

A view of the 14th Street Bridge looking toward Washington, DC from Virginia

People do not decide to become extraordinary. They decide to accomplish extraordinary things.
-Edmund Hillary, New Zealand mountaineer and explorer

The 14th Street Bridge is a complex of five bridges across the Potomac River, connecting Arlington, Virginia, with Washington, D.C. A major gateway for automotive and rail traffic, the complex is named for 14th Street (U.S. 1), which feeds into it on the D.C. end. Each of the complex’s five bridge spans has its own name. The northbound span, which opened in 1950, was originally named the Rochambeau Bridge, but was renamed the Arland D. Williams Jr. Memorial Bridge in 1983. Here is the reason for this name change.

It was a Wednesday afternoon in January, 1982 in Washington, D.C. It was a cold, bitter cold, snowy time of the year and there was a blizzard blasting the northeastern part of the United States. Air Florida Flight 90 was ready to take off. It had been sitting for an hour on the tarmac and no one had examined the wings for icing, and the plane took off at 3:59 pm EST, with heavy snow falling. At 4:01 pm EST, the airplane, a Boeing 737-222 airliner, smashed into the 14th Street Bridge and plummeted into the cold, freezing water of the Potomac River. It crushed seven occupied vehicles on the bridge and destroyed ninety-seven feet of guard rail and forty-one feet of the bridge’s wall as it plunged into the icy water.

Following the crash, there was a momentary silence that seemed to last for an eternity. There was no noise, but only an empty silence. Suddenly, there were the sirens, the ambulances, the police cars, and the fire trucks onto the scene. Seventy-eight people died instantly, including four motorists on the 14th Street Bridge. The six people who were alive crawled out of the airplane and onto the wing and began looking for aid. Some were badly injured, with abrasions and broken bones. All of them struggled in the river’s arctic chill, shouting for help.

Though the six were just forty or so yards from the riverbank, jagged ice all around the wreckage made sending a rescue boat out to them an impossibility. It also seemed impossible for a rescue helicopter to reach the survivors. After all, Flight 90 was in the water because of the day’s snow, ice and wind.

A woman standing on the wing dove into the water and floated down the icy waters screaming for help. The people on the banks of the river stood there, panicking, not knowing what to do, but one man dove into the cold water and swam to the woman, rescued the woman and brought her back to the land. Later, the young man said, “Somebody had to help that woman.”

By this point, twenty minutes had passed since the crash. The sun was setting and with the darkening skies, it seemed that the six who had survived the crash would perish that day nonetheless.

But then the outlook became more hopeful. A United States Parks Service helicopter piloted by Donald W. Usher was on the scene. Paramedic Gene Windsor quickly sent down a lifeline – putting it right into the hands of Bert Hamilton, who was treading water about ten feet from the tail of the plane and who was whisked from the water and into the safety of the chopper.

The helicopter returned to the aircraft’s tail, and this time the lifeline was dropped to Arland D. Williams, Jr., a quiet, middle-aged bank examiner who had wrapped up business in D.C. and was setting off for his home in Florida on that fateful day in January 1982. When Williams took the lifeline, he did something both shocking and wonderful. Instead of wrapping it around himself, he passed it to flight attendant Kelly Duncan, who was taken to safety.

The lifeline dropped again and Williams again gave away the lifeline to another. On its third trip back to the wreckage, two lifelines were lowered for fear that the survivors in the water had only a few minutes before succumbing to hypothermia. Arland Williams again caught one of the lines, and again passed it on, this time to Joe Stiley, the most severely injured of the survivors. Stiley slipped the line around his waist and grabbed Priscilla Tirado who was nearly hysterical, having lost both her husband and her baby. Patricia Felch took the second line. Before they reached the shore, both women lost their grips and fell back into the water. Priscilla Tirado was too weak to grab the line when the helicopter dropped the line to her again. A watching bystander, Larry Skutnik, stripped off his coat and boots, and in short sleeves, dove into the icy water and swam to assist her. The helicopter proceeded to where Patricia Felch had fallen and Paramedic Gene Windsor dropped from the helicopter and attached a line around her.

By the time the helicopter crew could return to Arland Williams, both he and the plane’s tail section had disappeared beneath the water’s icy surface. Williams had been in the water for twenty-nine minutes. His body and those of the other occupants were later recovered.

The next morning’s news accounts called him a hero, but he remained nameless, faceless, and described only as a middle-aged man. His identity would emerge only after the coroner’s examination of all of Flight 90’s victims. Seventy-four bodies had been pulled from the river, but just one had water-filled lungs – Arland D. Williams, the man who had made it out of the plane only to drown. He drowned because, rather than save himself, the 46-year-old with much to live for, had chosen to put others first.

After his death, former classmates at the Citadel, the South Carolina military academy where he had attended college, were not surprised by Williams’ sacrifice. “Always take care of your people first,’’ his roommate Frank Webster has said in describing the training Williams had received at the Citadel. “That’s an unbreakable code. You go last. Your people go first.”

“His heroism was not rash,” observed his minister at Williams’ funeral. “Aware that his own strength was fading, he deliberately handed hope to someone else, and he did so repeatedly. On that cold and tragic day, Arland D. Williams Jr. exemplified one of the highest attributes of human nature, specifically that some people are capable of doing anything for total strangers.”

Rather than simply admire Williams’ selflessness, we might think of ways that we can offer a lifeline of hope to those in need around us. The sacrifices we might make today in extending hope to another person likely will not mean giving up our lives the way Williams did, but instead, probably will involve a net gain – with our lives enriched by the promise of hope we offer.

Arland D. Williams Jr

Arland D. Williams Jr

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