Friday, February 11, 2005

DAYS OF DISASTER - 1949 & 1982

Recovery of Air Florida wreckage

By Vinny Del Giudice
Editor, Arlington Fire Journal

In 1949 and 1982, airliners crashed into the Potomac River near Washington National Airport. In both accidents, there was a great loss of life. Eerily, the Washington area’s fire fighting forces faced almost simultaneous disasters as they responded to the crashes.

On Jan. 13, 1982, Air Florida Flight 90 slammed into the 14th Street Bridge and sank in the river during a winter storm. More than 80 people died. Less than an hour later, a Metrorail train derailed in downtown Washington.

On Nov. 1, 1949, a Bolivian military aircraft collided with Eastern Airlines Flight 537 as the airliner approached the airport, killing 55 people. Earlier that day, firefighters fought a major blaze downtown.

Air Florida - 1982

Air Florida Flight 90, a twin-engine Boeing 737 jetliner carrying 83 passengers and crew, departed to the north on National Airport’s main runway at 1600 hours on Jan. 13, 1982.

Seven inches of snow had fallen in the nation’s capital that day. The ground temperature was 24 degrees. Visibility was limited. Ice had built up on the wings of the jetliner as it waited its turn to takeoff, preventing Flight 90 from gaining altitude. The aircraft shuddered.

Below, traffic on the 14th Street Bridge was heavy as the storm led to the early dismissal of federal workers. ``With an awful metallic crack, a blue-and-white jet swept out of the swirling snow … smacked against one of the bridge’s spans, sheared through five cars like a machete, ripped through 50 feet of guard rail and plunged nose first into the frozen Potomac River,’’ The Washington Post said.

Call for help

At 1605 hours, the Arlington County Emergency Communications Center received a telephone call from CB radio operator Evie White -- a member of REACT -- advising of trouble at the 14th Street Bridge, possibly an aircraft down. ``One phone call,’’ said Craig Allen, the ECC system manager. ``That’s what we had to go with.’’ Cellular phones were for the future.

At 1606, ECC transmitted Box 7503, a full first alarm assignment consisting of Engines 75, 74, and 70; Trucks 74 and 79; Medics 75 and 76; and Chief 77.

``We didn't know what we had,'' said Capt. Howard Piansky, then a private assigned to Engine 75, in a recent interview. ``We thought it was a small plane.''

It was much worse. Of the 83 people on the aircraft, only a few had survived the crash into the Potomac. They were struggling in the freezing river amid ice chunks, debris, luggage, seat cushions and jet fuel. On the bridge, four people were dead or dying. Others were injured.

The District of Columbia Fire Department alarm office received word of the crash at 1607, and struck Box 417 for the 14th St Bridge. That brought Engines 13, 7, 16 and 2; Trucks 10 and 3; Rescue Squads 1, 2 and 3; Ambulances 6, 7 and 5; Medics 9 and 11; Battalion 6 and the citywide tour commander and a variety of special units.

Responding to a call on the ``crash phone’’ from the airport tower, the National Airport Fire Department sent two rigs – Red 373 and Red 397 -- to the end of the Runway 18. Two other rigs – Red 376 and Red 396 – headed north on the George Washington Memorial Parkway, which runs parallel to the river, toward the bridge.

Treacherous highways

Getting to the scene was treacherous because of the snow and ice and the volume of commuter traffic on both sides of the river. Engine 75 stalled en route, and Piansky and the rest of the crew headed for the river on foot – arriving in time to help survivors brought ashore. Other fire companies were delayed in traffic on both sides of the river.

Subsequent alarms and special calls brought more help, including Medic 71, Medic 74, Chief 71 and Chief 73 from Arlington, Medic 62 from the airport, Medic 56 from Alexandria, a foam truck from Fort Myer, and the fireboat John Glenn from the district. Additionally, Fairfax County, Loudoun County and Montgomery County sent mutual aid. Dulles airport dispatched two crash rigs, Red 360 and Red 361.

Police played a crucial role. The U.S. Park Police helicopter Eagle 1 arrived over the river at 1620 to assist in the rescue effort, having lifted it off from its base five minutes earlier. Hovering over the river surface, the chopper plucked four survivors from the ice and carried them to the Virginia shoreline. On land, firefighters and paramedics wrapped the survivors in blankets and escorted them to ambulances.

Lenny Skutnik and others

There were other heroics. A passerby, Lenny Skutnik, 28, who worked at the Congressional Budget Office, dove into the river and rescued a woman who was too weak to hang onto a rescue line. ``She was screaming `Would somebody please help me!’’ Skutnik told The Post.

Firefighter John Leck, of D.C. Truck 3, also went into the water. ``Without hesitation and regard for his own safety, he secured a lifeline around his waist and entered the freezing water which was contaminated with jet fuel,’’ according his superior, Lt. Daniel O’Donnell. ``He swam to the injured woman and kept her head above water until the members on the river bank pulled them to safety by means of the lifeline.’’ O’Donnell’s report was published in the newsletter of the International Association of Fire Fighters.

The last survivor of the crash – a balding, middle aged man - vanished in the river after passing the helicopter lifeline to the others, the greatest act of heroism that day. As the Post reported: ``To the copter’s two-man Park Police crew, he seemed the most alert. Life vests were dropped, then a flotation ball. The man passed them on to the others. On two occasions, the crew recalled … he handed away a lifeline from the hovering machine that could have dragged him to safety.’’

That man was later identified as Arland Williams -- and one of the bridge’s spans was named in his honor. An autopsy showed Williams was the only victim to drown. The others suffered traumatic injuries.

On the 14th Bridge itself, the members of Engine 74, Medic 75 and Medic 71 marked on the scene at 1615 and began treating casualties and working to free motorists from the wreckage of their vehicles. Medic 75 called for 10 additional medic units.

'Like a battle zone'

Flight 90’s landing gear crushed several cars and tipped a large truck. ``It was like a battle zone,’’ said retired Firefighter Chuck Satterfield, who was driving Engine 74’s wagon. ``They kept saying it was a small plane – a private plane.’’

Engine 74, under the command of Capt. Mike Dove, had just cleared a call for alarm bells in Rosslyn. Wanting to avoid heavy traffic on Wilson Boulevard, Satterfield and Dove decided to use a roundabout route to get back to their station in Clarendon. That decision helped put them on an almost clear course for the bridge when alarm was sounded.

Once on the bridge, Engine 74’s crew tended to an Air Force captain pinned in a car. ``He was alive but died later,’’ Satterfield said.

Some of the other victims were obviously dead. Their bodies were covered with tarps and removed later. The expression of death on the face of one victim suggested he saw the plane descending toward the bridge.

Even though Arlington County firefighters were among the first on the bridge, a D.C. fire chief who arrived at 1630 requested that they leave because the river was within his jurisdiction, according to a task force report on the disaster.

Arlington Fire Chief Thomas Hawkins ``directed that a staging area be set up on the GW Parkway,’’ the task force report said.

At about the same time, police and firefighters started recovering the dead from the river. Within the first hour, two dozen bodies had been brought ashore. ``It was an absolutely ghastly sight,’’ said John Gamble, a volunteer firefighter quoted by the Post.

Recalling that surreal scene almost two decades later, Piansky said there was little left to do after the survivors had been pulled from the river and sent to hospitals.

Most of the passengers and crew died on impact, some still strapped to their seats in the submerged fuselage. ``It was a helpless feeling,’’ Piansky said.

In the hour or so after the airplane crashed, Arlington 911 received only one other fire or EMS call, Allen said. It was ``an OB’’ – a woman had gone into labor in the far northeastern part of the county, he said. A new life was about to begin.

Metrorail accident downtown

Meantime, another deadly drama was unfolding in downtown Washington. At 1640, the D.C. fire alarm office transmitted Box 484 for a derailment in a subway tunnel between Federal Triangle and Smithsonian stations. That alarm brought out Engines 23, 3, 1 and 18; Trucks 1 and 2; Rescue Squad 4; Battalions 2 and 7; and the Salvage and Air Unit.

Metrorail personnel were attempting to reverse an eastbound train that had crossed over to the westbound track, when the lead car smashed into a concrete bulkhead – splitting the train open. Emergency lighting failed and plunged the train into darkness.

Transit police officer Terry Rylick, who was riding in the subway car that derailed, radioed the initial call for assistance.

As the magnitude of the accident became apparent, Engines 8 and 9, Truck 4, several medic units and ambulances, were sent to Box 484. In some cases, fire and EMS units were diverted from the 14th Street Bridge.

Responding to a call for mutual aid, Prince George’s County sent Rescue Squad 22, several ambulances and a medic unit.

The Metrorail accident claimed several lives and injured about two dozen people. In all 1,200 commuters were evacuated from the tunnel.

Eastern Airlines - 1949

Glen Tigner, 21, an air traffic controller on duty at the National Airport Tower on Nov. 1, 1949, sounded the crash alarm. ``Turn left! Turn left!’’ Tigner had radioed moments earlier as a Bolivian Air Force fighter on a practice run veered toward a commercial flight on approach to the airport from the south.

Eastern Airlines Flight 537, which originated in Boston and made a stopover in New York, carried 55 passengers and crew. The Bolivian aircraft, a single-seat P-38 Lockheed Lightning, had just been purchased from the U.S. government. Flight 537’s final destination was supposed to be New Orleans. It never made in beyond Alexandria. At 1156 hours, the fighter slammed into the Douglas DC-4. The tail of the commercial airliner just missed the Mount Vernon Memorial Highway, near Four Mile Run.

Everyone aboard Flight 537 died. The pilot of the Bolivian aircraft, Capt. Eric Rios Bridaux, 28, was seriously injured - but survived.

At the time, it was considered the nation's deadliest civilian aircraft accident. Among those on the DC-4 were George Bates, a congressman from Massachusetts, and Helen Hokinson, a cartoonist for the New Yorker magazine.

Grim scene

Retired Arlington firefighter Frank Higgins recalled the grisly recovery, with fire and ambulance crews removing victims from the river. Some were still strapped in their seats. Many were severely disfigured. ``Legs, a headless body,'' Higgins said, describing the gruesome inventory.

Others related similar stories. Firefighters also gathered personal effects from the knee-deep water and muck. ``The river was very shallow there,’’ said Harold LeRoy, a veteran Arlington volunteer firefighter.

A quarter mile away, a crash boat from Bolling Air Force Base rescued the fighter pilot. ``The Bolivian ambassador, after visiting Captain Rios in the hospital, said the pilot told him he had been occupied with engine difficulties and apparently did not hear the final warning from the control tower,’’ according to The New York Times.

Newspaper and wire service photos of the crash scene showed the shattered rear of the DC-4 resting on the Virginia shoreline, firefighters removing a victim’s body from the shallow water on a stretcher and an airline pilot carrying a child’s doll recovered from the river.

Upholstery salesman

J. Donald Mayor, a sales manager for Custom Upholstering Co, was driving on the Mount Vernon Memorial Highway and witnessed the collision. The Falls Church resident stopped his car and waded into the river before firefighters arrived.

``I ripped off my coat jacket and took off my shoes,’’ Mayor told The Washington Post. ``I saw a few fellows just standing there and I shouted `What’s the matter? You cowards?’ Two ran along with me. For some reason, I don’t know why, but I rolled up my sleeves.’’

Mayor and the others spotted a woman floating face down in the oily water. They dragged her ashore. She was bleeding from the mouth and mortally wounded. By that time, firefighters arrived and blanketed the wreckage with foam.

``Then I saw them open rescue holes in the plane with special equipment they had,’’ Mayor said. ``Rescue workers got a woman’s body out of the wreckage first. She was about 70 at least, with gray hair and wrinkled skin, very heavy set. Looked like her nose had been ripped off. Then they brought out a young man, about 30 or so. He was in an Army jacket, I think. Next they got a heavy man.’’

Soaked and shivering, Mayor got in his car and headed home to his family in Falls Church. ``I saw I couldn’t do any more,’’ he said.

Twin disasters

Across the river, firefighters were clearing the scene of an earlier incident as the airport crash siren sounded.

A series of explosions heralded a fire on the top floors of the New Post Office Department building at 12th Street and Pennsylvania Avenue, Northwest. Twenty people were injured, including eight firefighters. The first alarm for was transmitted at 0958. A second alarm followed at 1012, and a third alarm was sounded at 1031.

In all, twelve engines, four ladders, a water tower and tender, two squads and six ambulances answered the series of alarms. D.C. Fire Chief Joseph Mayhew and three battalion chiefs directed the operation.

Aaron Trail, the building superintendent, was trapped in a room with barred windows on the eighth floor. A truck company extended an aerial ladder as far as it would go and then – in a rare and dramatic operation – two firefighters used a scaling ladder to reach the barred window and pass breathing apparatus to Trail.

Another crew of firefighters reached Trail from the inside and escorted him to safety. He was treated at Emergency Hospital for minor injuries.

Among the most seriously injured firefighters at the postal blaze was D.C. Fire Sergeant Joseph Mattare of Engine 13. Mattare was admitted to Emergency Hospital for smoke inhalation and a shoulder injury. The Washington Post published a photograph of the fire department physician, in full running gear, resuscitating the fallen firefighter. After recovering from his injuries, Mattare went on to serve as D.C. fire chief from 1971-1973.