Witness to History

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National Law Enforcement Museum holds panel discussion covering details on the tragic flight that crashed into the Potomac River in January 1982

Eagle One: Rescue and Recovery of Air Florida Flight 90 was the 15th installment in the National Law Enforcement Museum’s Witness to History panel discussion series generously funded by Target®.

Held at the U.S. Navy Memorial’s Burke Theatre, guests enjoyed a fascinating discussion featuring retired US Park Police Pilot Don Usher, retired Metropolitan (DC) Police Department Detective Eric Witzig, and cameraman Chester Panzer, who was a Pulitzer Prize finalist for capturing the rescue of the survivors of Air Florida Flight 90.

When Air Florida Flight 90 took off from National Airport on the afternoon of January 13, 1982, Washington, DC, was covered in snow. The Boeing 737 was doomed from the start. A combination of inexperienced piloting and blizzard-like conditions caused the aircraft to strike the nearby 14th Street Bridge and then crash into the icy Potomac River. Four motorists from the bridge and 73 of the 79 people aboard the aircraft were killed. Flight attendant Kelly Duncan, and passengers Bert Hamilton, Joe Stiley, Nikki Felch, and Priscilla Tirado were able to escape the wreckage. Arland Williams Jr. survived the crash but was trapped by plane wreckage.

Just a few miles away, US Park Police Pilot Don Usher and Rescue Technician Gene Windsor were on duty. According to Don Usher, “We got the call, ‘I know this sounds weird, but are you guys available to fly?’ The easy answer would have been, ‘we’re unavailable, due to the weather,’ but that wasn’t going to happen.” The snow and wind were so severe they needed a plow to get to Eagle One, US Park Police’s Bell Long Ranger helicopter. Eagle One was often used for emergency and medical evacuations, but it was not outfitted with a full cache of rescue equipment.

Given the severe weather, Usher had trouble navigating the helicopter using normal landmarks. The federal government had closed early that day, and as commuters made their way over bridges connecting the District of Columbia to Virginia, their headlights and taillights guided Eagle One to the crash site. Sitting in traffic on one of the bridges, WRC-TV cameraman Chester Panzer received the call from his news station that a plane had gone down in the Potomac River. Usher and Windsor had arrived and rescued one survivor, Bert Hamilton, while Panzer was setting up his camera, but he captured the rest of the ten minute operation on film. Panzer remembered that during the rescue, “We stayed out of the way and blended in…we certainly didn’t want to get in the way of saving lives.”

Witness to History: Eagle One - Rescue and Recovery of Air Florida Flight 90

The Witness to History audience saw Panzer’s incredible footage. Flight Attendant Kelly Duncan was lifted from the water using only the helicopter’s tow rope. Feeling the urgency of the situation, Usher and Windsor tried to rescue Joe Stiley, Priscilla Tirado, and Nikki Felch together. Tirado held on to Stiley who was connected to the helicopter by the tow rope and Felch tried to hold on to another rope attached to the helicopter provided by firefighters on shore. Felch lost her grip and fell into open water but was luckily wearing the plane’s sole surviving flotation device.

Tirado eventually lost her grip on Stiley and was left behind on an ice float while Usher brought Stiley to shore. Eagle One returned for Tirado but she could not hold on to the tow rope and was very close to drowning when Lenny Skutnik, an employee of the Congressional Budget Office, jumped into the water to save her. Skutnik brought Tirado to the shore where firefighters placed them both in an ambulance. Usher then returned to Felch. Usher knowing that Felch was in hypothermic shock and couldn’t hold on to the tow rope instead brought the helicopter down to the water so Windsor could grab Felch. As seen in Panzer’s video, the helicopter’s skid was briefly submerged, a dangerous move. “I actually didn’t know the skids were in the water until Gene told me,” Usher said, “which I fixed rapidly after that.” Windsor, standing on the helicopter skid and connected to the aircraft only by the communication wire in his helmet, balanced Felch on his boot and the skid while Usher flew the helicopter to the shore.

Usher and Windsor went back to the wreckage for Arland Williams Jr., but he had disappeared after the airplane shifted underwater. During the rescue, Williams had continually passed the rescue rope to other survivors. Once the damaged portion of the 14th Street Bridge was reconstructed, it was renamed in his honor.

The Metropolitan (DC) Police Department was in charge of the recovery of the bodies from the river – a 10 day effort. “Everyone was found,” Eric Witzig, a retired MPD homicide detective, said. “You can imagine how hard it was for the divers to find people, but everyone was found.” An exceptionally emotional moment of the night occurred when he mentioned that a survivor’s 18-month-old baby was the last body recovered. Witzig and other homicide detectives were part of the massive recovery effort because any unattended death in Washington, DC, was considered the jurisdiction of the police until a cause of death was determined by the coroner. Each body recovered from the plane crash was escorted from the temporary morgue at the crash site to the coroner’s office where they were identified.

Though air traffic controllers at Washington National Airport were initially blamed for the accident, a federal investigation determined that the pilots of Air Florida Flight 90 caused the crash.  The airplane’s black box recording confirmed that the head pilot continued with the airplane’s scheduled take-off, ignoring the first officer’s concerns about malfunctioning signals.

Eagle One, the Bell helicopter used in the rescue, will be on permanent display at the National Law Enforcement Museum when it opens in 2018.