WASHINGTON, D.C. – It’s been 30 years since an Air Florida jetliner taking off from National Airport here plowed into the 14th Street Bridge and then plummeted into the ice-covered Potomac below.
Williams, born 77 years ago this month in the small town of Mattoon, Ill., was a quiet, middle-aged bank examiner who’d wrapped up business in D.C. and quietly set off for his home in Florida on that day of Jan. 13, 1982 when he helped three strangers live at the cost of his own life.
Many of us recall watching the almost-unbelievably dramatic footage captured by D.C. news crews as six Flight 90 survivors emerged from the wreckage and began looking for aid. Some were badly injured, with abrasions and broken bones. All of them struggled in the river’s arctic chill, shouting for help.
Though the six were just 40 or so yards from the riverbank, jagged ice all around the wreckage made sending a rescue boat out to them an impossibility. It also seemed impossible for a rescue helicopter to reach the survivors; wasn’t Flight 90 in the water because of the day’s snow, ice and wind?
Initially, desperate bystanders on the bridge sought to fashion a lifeline that could be dangled to those in the water. They grabbed utility truck ladders and fastened scarves and other items, but couldn’t get close. Another would-be rescuer began to swim through the 33-degree water chockablock with ice, tugging a rescue rope along with him. Before he could reach the Flight 90 survivors, he was nearly unconscious himself and had to be dragged from the river.
By this point, 20 minutes had passed since the crash. The sun was setting and with the darkening skies, it seemed that the six who’d survived the crash would perish that day nonetheless.
But then the scene changed: hope came into view in the form of a U.S. Parks Service helicopter piloted by Donald W. Usher. Paramedic Gene Windsor quickly sent down a life ring – putting it right into the hands of a survivor, who was whisked from the water and into the safety of the chopper.
The life ring then dropped to Williams, who did something shocking, and wonderful. He passed the ring to the woman next to him, who was taken up to safety. The ring dropped again and Williams again gave away the lifeline to another.
And then he did again.
And a few moments later, the helicopter was back to rescue Williams, but by then the plane wreckage had shifted. Now the tail section had slipped farther into the water, and Williams was nowhere to be seen.
The next morning’s news accounts called him a hero, but he remained nameless, faceless, described only as a middle-aged man. His identity would emerge only after the coroner’s examination of all of Flight 90’s victims. Seventy-four bodies had been pulled from the river, but just one had water-filled lungs – Williams, the man who’d made it out of the plane only to drown.
He drowned because, rather than save himself, the 46-year-old with much to live for – recently divorced, he’d just reconnected with his high school girlfriend; he was his parents’ only child; he was father to a teenage son and daughter – had chosen to put others first.
After his death, former classmates at the Citadel, the South Carolina military academy where he’d attended college, weren’t surprised by Williams’ sacrifice.
“ ‘Always take care of your people first,’ ’’ his roommate Frank Webster has said in describing the young men’s training at the Citadel. “That’s an unbreakable code. You go last. Your people go first.”
Today, Williams’ memory remains alive in pockets around the nation, including at the Citadel, which in 2000 created the Arland D. Williams Society to honor Citadel grads who have devoted their lives to social service.
Not long after Williams’ death, his survivors accepted on his behalf the U.S. Coast Guard Gold Lifesaving Medal. The rebuilt 14th Street Bridge now is the Arland D. Williams Jr. Memorial Bridge. In his hometown, the Arland D. Williams Jr. Elementary School opened in 2003. A bust of its namesake greets students each morning.
“His heroism was not rash,” observed his minister Williams’ funeral. “Aware that his own strength was fading, he deliberately handed hope to someone else, and he did so repeatedly. On that cold and tragic day, Arland D. Williams Jr. exemplified one of the best attributes of human nature, specifically that some people are capable of doing anything for total strangers.”
Thinking back to that day, rather than simply admire Williams’ selflessness, we might think of ways we can offer a lifeline to those in need around us. The sacrifices we might make today in extending hope to another likely won’t mean giving up our lives the way Williams did, but instead probably will involve a net gain – with our lives enriched by the care we offer.
The artist Mary Anne Radmacher puts it this way: “As we work to create light for others, we naturally light our own way.”