The Tragedy of the Potomac River

On January 13, 1982, a flight attendant named Kelly Duncan was seen trying to grasp a lifeline from a helicopter. The cold river made her fingers go numb, and she was unable to hold on any longer. Seconds after she had fallen into the river, a helicopter crew risked their lives to save her.

Earlier that afternoon, the same Air Florida flight 90 that Duncan was on had been delayed for two hours at Washington D.C.’s National airport due to snowstorms. Soon after the plane took off, it started to shake and move, and passengers could hear the captain saying, “Come on, forward, forward, just barely climb.“ The other officer shouted, “Larry, we‘re going down!“ “I know it,“ yelled back the captain.

After the plane indeed went down, it was impossible for emergency vehicles to react quickly due to the rush hour. Cars on the Potomac Bridge were bumper to bumper when the plane crashed, and some cars went into the river along with the plane. The aircraft went nose first and the people in the front died instantly. The tail of the plane was above water for only around 20 minutes. Millions of people across the U.S watched on live TV as helpless passengers dropped into the freezing river — water so cold the passengers had only minutes to live.

One of those passengers was holding on to a lifebelt that was pulling her towards the shore when suddenly she lost her grip and let go of the belt. A 39-year-old office worker named Lennie Skutnik jumped into the water. He dragged the young woman to shore but did not have time to acknowledge his accomplishment. He was immediately taken to the hospital for hypothermia.

A week after, divers were working in the cold and dark river to retrieve the “black box.“ The black box revealed the Boeing 737 plane, which has also experienced issues and controversy in recent months, was not made for icy conditions and the staff in charge of de-icing the plane‘s wings were not aware of its special needs. The captain had also underestimated the amount of ice on the plane‘s wings. As a result, the aircraft could not protect its passengers.

Of the 74 passengers on the plane, only five survived. Among the survivors was Kelly Duncan.

[Source: The World's Greatest Disasters]