Witness To History | Eagle One: Rescue and Recovery of Air Florida Flight 90
National Law Enforcement Museum holds panel discussion covering details on the tragic flight that crashed into the Potomac River in January 1982
February 1, 2017
Washington, DC—On Tuesday, January 31, 2017, the National Law Enforcement Museum presented the 15th installment of its popular Witness to History panel discussion series, generously sponsored by Target®. Held at the U.S. Navy Memorial’s Burke Theatre, guests enjoyed a fascinating discussion featuring retired U.S. Park Police Pilot Don Usher, retired Metropolitan Police Department (MPD) of Washington, DC, Detective Eric Witzig and Chester Panzer, the only news cameraman to capture the rescue of the survivors of Air Florida Flight 90.
Washington, DC, was covered in snow on the afternoon of January 13, 1982, when Air Florida Flight 90 took off from National Airport and crashed into the nearby 14th Street Bridge, landing in the icy Potomac River. The impact killed four motorists and 74 of the 79 passengers aboard the aircraft. The survivors treaded in the cold water awaiting rescue which came from Eagle One, the U.S. Park Police Bell helicopter piloted by Don Usher with Rescue Technician Gene Windsor. The rescue and eventual recovery of the passengers lead to the procurement of additional rescue equipment for the area.
National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund President and CEO Craig W. Floyd kicked off the event by welcoming the more than 200 guests packed in the theater. After a brief introduction, Mr. Floyd introduced moderator Frank Bond, a retired anchor and reporter of Washington DC’s WUSA-TV, and current documentary producer for the Newseum.
The Federal government had closed early that day, and as commuters made their way over the bridges, the U.S. Park Police received a call from flight control at Washington National Airport about a missing aircraft. Don Usher recalled, “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 the helicopter, which they immediately flew to the crash site.
Veteran WRC-TV cameraman Chester Panzer was sitting in traffic on another bridge up the river when he received the call from his news station that a plane had gone down in the Potomac River. He made his way to the site and started shooting video of the victims being pulled from the river by the helicopter. “We stayed out of the way and blended in…we certainly didn’t want to get in the way of saving lives.”
The audience watched Panzer’s footage of the incident, including rescues of the survivors thanks to the crew of Eagle One. At one point in the video, the helicopter’s skid is briefly submerged in the water in order to extract a survivor, 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.”
Eric Witzig, a retired MPD homicide detective, spoke about his experience with the crash and the lack of communication options between the responding agencies. “Communications are better today than they were 35 years ago, however, they are not as good as they could be,” he said. “We made the recommendation 35 years ago that I should be able to talk to Don [Usher]. That’s two different departments, two different functions, but I needed to communicate with him, and couldn’t do it.”
The MPD was in charge of the recovery of the bodies of the passengers spanning 11 days. “Everyone was found,” Witzig said. “You can imagine how hard it was for the diver to find people, but everyone was found.” It was exceptionally emotional when he mentioned that a survivor’s 18-month-old baby was the last body to be pulled from the wreckage.
Though air traffic controllers at Washington National Airport were initially blamed for the accident, the federal investigation found it to be the fault of the pilots of Air Florida Flight 90. The black box recording confirmed the pilot’s decision to continue with the scheduled take-off, despite plane reading malfunctions and concerns raised by the first officer.
Special recognition was given to Arland Williams Jr., who survived the plane crash but died trying to save other survivors, passing the rescue ropes to them first. The 14th Street Bridge was renamed in his honor.
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.
The Museum’s Witness to History program began in June 2011. Since the inaugural event, 14 more have been presented. Video recordings and photos from the events are available to view on the Museum's website.
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