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Witness to History: Air Florida Flight 90 Crash

January 13, 1982

Thirty years ago, on a snowy January afternoon in Washington, DC, the roads surrounding the District were crowded with commuters heading home. One of those commuters was William McManus, then-Sergeant with the Metropolitan (DC) Police Department, now Chief of the San Antonio Police Department. His drive home took Sgt. McManus over the 14th Street Bridge, a major connector between the District and Virginia that crosses the Potomac River. About a mile past the bridge, he heard news of a plane crash come over his police radio. “I don’t recall hearing the impact, but heard on my radio that a plane went down in the river, and I turned my car around,” he said.

Read more on the crash of Air Florida flight 90 on Museum Blog

The crash of Air Florida flight 90 in 1982 was a major event in the Washington, DC, area.  Shortly before 4:00, a Boeing 737 took off from National Airport, which sits along the Potomac River.  Ice-clogged sensors prevented the plane from reaching the proper altitude, and about a mile after takeoff, it slammed into the top of the 14th Street Bridge, ripping into pieces as it plunged over the bridge and into the river.  Only five people on board survived; the other 74 passengers and crew perished.

Chief McManus recounted his participation in the rescue and recovery operations as the third speaker in the National Law Enforcement Museum’s Witness to History lecture series. At a conference of the Major Cities Chiefs in Las Vegas on February 2, 2012, Chief McManus described the Air Florida crash as “the most horrific event” in the course of his career until the plane struck the Pentagon on September 11, 2001.

The Chief talked about his duties the day after the crash occurred. He was assigned to stand post at a temporary morgue set up on the banks of the Potomac River and witnessed first-hand the recovery of the crash victims from the icy river—some,  as many as eight or ten people in a section, still seatbelted in airplane seats when extracted. What struck him most, he recalled, is that one of the first victims recovered that day was a personal acquaintance, a man he had played racquetball with only the day before.

Moderated by Craig Floyd, Chairman and CEO of the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund, other chiefs in the audience were then invited to share their thoughts and recollections of their participation in other disaster responses. Chief William Citty of the Oklahoma City Police Department was the Department’s Public Information Officer during the 1995 terrorist bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building.  He pointed out that first responders witnessed violence and death on a large scale during that crisis, noting that many officers involved in rescue and recovery used the event as a catalyst to begin to express their own emotions, not only in reaction to the attack itself, but also to other experiences they had encountered over the course of their careers. Chief Citty acknowledged the value of officers coming to terms with personal emotions relating to their work and the challenges of doing so, saying that “sometimes you just have to do it for the community.”

Chief Timothy J. Dolan of the Minneapolis Police Department was Chief of Police when the I-35 West Mississippi River Bridge collapsed in August 2007. He echoed the sentiments expressed by Chief McManus and Chief Citty, defining the disaster as unforgettable. Chief Dolan made it a priority to identify those officers who participated in rescue and recovery, ensuring that officers took time to debrief after the event and that counseling services were provided.

Disaster planning, table-top scenarios and training simulations are indispensable, and, since the terrorist attacks of 2001, highly developed and widespread throughout the law enforcement community. “You train and prepare as far as possible,” Chief McManus said. “But there are some things you just can’t plan for.”  Learning sessions such as Witness to History help bring to light the importance of caring for officers’ emotional and personal needs after a major disaster, even if planning for them is impossible.