Washington, DC Jet Liner Crashes Into Potomac River, Jan 1982
'IT DROPPED OUT OF THE SKY'
DIVERS SEARCH FOR 75 BODIES.
Washington (AP) -- Divers in thermal suits plunged into the ice-crusted Potomac River today in a grim search for scores of bodies entombed in the fuselage of a crashed jetliner. A police official estimated "the slow, tedious task" of recovery may take three days.
The crash of a Florida-bound jet Wednesday killed 75 of the 80 people on the plane. District of Columbia police said, two other people were killed when the Air Florida plane broadsided cars as they inched across the 14th Street Bridge laden with rush-hour traffic. The impact sheared the tops off some of the cars.
"We expect the recovery to be a slow, tedious task, taking anywhere from one to two to three days perhaps," said JAMES SHUGART, a D. C. police inspector. "We want to make the recovery as quickly as possible, but you must keep in mind the fact that weather conditions are such that they are not conducive to rapid recovery."
FRANCIS McADAMS, head of the National Transportation Safety Board team of investigators assembling at the site, said:
"They may have to life the wreckage before they get to the bodies, it's my understanding."
Divers hit the water not long after daybreak. A huge construction crane was being assembled on the bridge.
McADAMS said when the wreckage is recovered, it will be put on a barge or towed to shore, whichever is easier.
"And if necessary, it will be brought down here to one of the hangars and perhaps a mockup might have to be made," he said. The NTSB "go team" of investigators set up shop at nearby National Airport.
Transportation Secretary DREW LEWIS; Sen. JOHN WARNER, R-Va.; and Virginia's governor-elect, CHARLES ROBB, visited the crash site early in the day.
At least five people were plucked from the fragments of the plane or from the river water, cold enough to kill in minutes.
(Six Coast Guardsmen were sent from the Annapolis Coast Guard Headquarters to help in the rescue effort last night. The Coast Guard also sent the cutter Capstan from Alexandria, Va., to the scene, as well as divers from the Atlantic Area Strike Force, based in North Carolina.)
The Boeing 737, carrying 75 passengers and five crew members, took off from National Airport, hit the span of the 14th Street Bridge, broke in two, then toppled into the river barely 100 yards from a second span crowded with commuters headed home to Virginia in the driving snow.
IRA FURMAN, spokesman for the National Transportation Safety Board, said there was no hint why Air Florida Flight 90 to Tampa and Fort Lauderdale crashed, but one of the survivors said he had an uneasy feeling from the start.
"I had a pretty good indication things weren't going right when we started down the runway," said JOSEPH STILEY, 42, a licensed private pilot from Alexandria, Va. "I think it might have been just a little bit heavy from the ice."
The airport control tower reported no distress calls from the doomed plane during its few seconds of flight Wednesday. The last crash of a commercial plane at National, a smallish 40-year-old airport sniggled on the Virginia bank of the Potomac, was in 1949.
FURMAN said federal safety investigators "will be looking at the weather, human factors, everything." One of the first steps will be to examine cockpit flight recorders once the split pieces of the two-engine jet are fished from the river,hopefully today.
The blue and green airliner had just taken off from Natinoal Airport, where it had been serviced by American Airlines. The airport had been closed temporarily to clear snow from the runway until about an hour before the aircraft took off.
Visibility was about a half mile, close to the minimum. Three inches of snow had fallen, and it was snowing heavily at the time of the crash.
FRANK TAYLOR, director of the National Transportation Safety Board's bureau of accidents investigations, said the de-icing solution sprayed on the plane during a turn-around from Florida was impounded. He said samples also were taken from fuel tanks used to supply the plane.
Among other areas to be examined: weather and runway conditions, the weight of the plane and the conditions of its engines.
The Federal Aviation Administration says there is no reason to suspect air traffic controller error for the crash.
Airman TERENCE BELL saw the plane coming down as he headed onto the bridge from his Air Force job at the nearby Pentagon.
"I saw him coming in too low," BELL said.
Another witness, LLOYD CREGER of Mt. Rainier, Wash., said, "I couldn't see anything wrong with the plane at all ... it just dropped out of the sky."
Divers and others had managed to pull only nine bodies from the plane's wreckage or from the river water during the four hours before darkness and floating shards of ice made their work impossible.
Bodies still strapped in their seats could be seen in the river moments after the 4:04 p.m. crash. Rescuers threw ropes and life rings from the bridge and from helicopters or attempted to reach the wreckage in rubber rafts.
The bridge, known in Washington as the 14th Street Bridge, is actually three spans. All were crowded with traffic because federal workers on both sides of the river -- in Washington and in Virginia -- had been sent home early because of the snowstorm.
The jetliner struck the southernmost of the spans, which carries traffic into the city from Virginia, and fell short of the two funneling cars to suburbs.
At a nearby motel, relatives of those aboard the plane gathered for news from police, their faces taut and teary.
SURVIVORS RECALL HARROWING ORDEAL.
Washington (AP) -- JOSEPH STILEY turned to his secretary in the seat beside him as the Air Florida plane reached the top of its arc and started falling. "We're not going to make it," he told her. "We're going in."
STILEY, one of five known survivors aboard the Boeing 737, said he knew the flight bound from Washington National Airport to Tampa and Fort Lauderdale, Fla., was in trouble before the plane even got into the air.
"I figured I had taken one airplane ride too many," he said. "I had a pretty good indication things weren't going right when we started down the runway. I think it might have been just a little bit heavy from the ice."
STILEY, 42, of Alexander, Va., was hospitalized with two broken legs at National Hospital for Orthopaedics and Rehabilitation in Arlington, Va., along with three other survivors aboard Flight 90. He also was suffering from hypothermia -- a lowering of the body temperature due to exposure -- and had several cuts and bruises on his face.
His secretary, PATRICIA "NICKI" FELCH of Herndon, Va., was listed in serious condition at Washington Hospital Center.
The last time STILEY saw her was when a chunk of ice in the Potomac River knocked her and another woman loose from his grip as a rescue helicopter overhead pulled him by a rope.
"Basically, I held onto the rope and let them drag me to shore," he said in an interview from his hospital bed. "I tried to hold onto the two gals .. or they tried to keep ahold of me."
STILEY, an executive with General Telephone and Electronics at McLean, Va., said he and his secretary were going to St. Petersburg, Fla., on a business trip.
"I know that we did not have the takeoff speed," he said, explaining that he has both an instrument and commercial pilot's license and had flown several times on Boeing 737s.
"It didn't climb like a normal 737 does," he said. "We were out of runway, and when we reached that point, I knew we weren't going to make it."
STILEY said ground crews "de-iced" the plane three times during the two hours it held at the gate while the airport was closed because of heavy snow.
The plane was towed to the runway by a tractor after it wasn't able to taxi out on its own because of poor traction on the ice, he said.
Still, STILEY said, he was not worried, he had seen other airliners take off in similar conditions.
But as it began its takeoff roll the plane did not seem to have the speed it needed, either because of poor traction or ice on its wings, he said.
"I think the pilot tried to abort and couldn't so the only thing he could do was go on," he said. "I knew we were too low, were going to hit something. I wasn't surprised."
STILEY, who was in the 18th row, estimated the plane was in the air only 20 seconds before hitting the 14th Street Bridge over the river between Virginia and the District of Columbia.
"I was looking our the side window. I knew the bridges were down there but I couldn't see them. I turned to NICKI and I said, "We're not going to make it; we're going to go in."
He then felt two impacts, apparently when the plane hit the bridge and again when it hit the water.
"I went unconscious on the second one," he said. "I think it was getting into the water that revived me."
STILEY said he did not think many of the passengers were killed on impact. When he regained consciousness, he saw four other people, one of them his secretary, get out through a hole ripped in the fuselage.
"The biggest problem was taking off the stupid seat belt," he said. "One of the other men said he was still strapped in -- and I couldn't do anything to help him. It seemed that everybody had their legs broken."
The Capital Annapolis Maryland 1982-01-14