As the accident occurred at the beginning of afternoon rush hour in Washington the bridge was packed with cars and there were hundreds of on-the-scene witnesses to the calamity. (4 people on the bridge lost their lives when their vehicles were struck by the falling aircraft.) Horrified onlookers could hear the cries of survivors coming from the water where only the tail section of the plane was visible above the ice. Someone had to do something.
First into the water was Roger Olian, a worker at a local hospital who had been on the bridge when the plane came down. He made two attempts to swim to the survivors near the tail section, aborting his second attempt just yards short when a Park Service Police helicopter manned by Donald Usher and Melvin Windsor arrived on the scene. (When Olian returned to shore he was unable to stand and verging on hypothermia, though he would make a full recovery.) The chopper's pilot, Usher, dropped their bird low over the river and Windsor dropped a rescue line toward the group clinging to the tail section wreckage. After successfully retrieving passenger Bert Hamilton they went back and attempted to drop a line to Arland Williams, who motioned for them to pass it on to the others instead. Flight attendant Kelly Duncan would eventually grab it and was lifted to the shore. After dropping Duncan the chopper returned and again attempted to drop a line to Williams, who again passed it on to someone else; this time to passenger Joe Stiley who grabbed hold of fellow passenger Priscilla Tirado with his broken arm. A second line was dropped and grabbed by Patricia Felch. On the way to shore both women lost their grip and fell back into the water. After depositing Stiley on the shore the chopper returned to pick up Tirado, now blinded by jet fuel and losing her battle to stay afloat in the sub-freezing water. When the chopper returned for her she was too numb to hold onto the life line and dropped back into water repeatedly. Finally, as Tirado began to sink below the surface some 20 yards from the shore, bystander Lenny Skutnik could take no more. He took off his coat and plunged into the river saving Tirado's life. Perhaps emboldened by witnessing Skutnik's heroics the chopper crew went back out for Felch and this time pushed things to the limit, dropping the chopper so close to the water that the landing skids were actually submerged. Windsor walked out onto one of the skids without protection, reached down and physically plucked Felch from the water. Moments later Felch, the fifth and final survivor of Flight 90, was dropped safely on the shore. When the chopper returned for Arland Williams he had gone under along with the tail section. The story of his unselfishness would not emerge until some time later when the chopper crew and survivors recalled events of that day.
In the end the NTSB concluded the accident was the result of numerous pilot errors; though it must be stressed that the co-pilot did attempt to warn his pilot of problems and was rebuffed. Had his warnings been heeded the accident probably never would have happened. The 14th Street Bridge was renamed "The Arland D. Williams Memorial Bridge" and Williams posthumously received the Coast Guard's Gold Lifesaving Medal in a White House ceremony. Roger Olian and Lenny Skutnik received the same honor and Skutnik was on hand to receive a standing ovation from a joint session of Congress two weeks later during the President's nationally televised State of the Union address. Donald Usher and Melvin Williams who were instrumental in the rescue of all of Flight 90's survivors received Silver Lifesaving medals from the Coast Guard, the Interior Department's Valor Award as well as the Carnegie Hero Fund Medal.
|Lenny Skutnik swims toward Priscilla Felch before rescuing her from the freezing Potomac|