The tragedy happened on January 13, 1982. I had just returned home and turned on the TV for the early evening news. A horror story in living color was being run, live, and the very mention of it, many of you will remember. The old bridge was the center of the picture.
This old concrete and steel structure connected Virginia with D.C. Hundreds of people had gathered, crowding both banks of the Potomac and the bridge itself. A smashed automobile and crushed bodies lay as mute testimony of the death that fell from the skies that day.
The blue lights were flashing, along with the red. Firemen were there, along with the heavy presence of the police. The traffic rush had been halted for a mile each way. Ambulances had made their way to the head of the line.
The Potomac had iced over. Air Florida #90 was doomed on the runway as the pilot and co-pilot waited patiently for the signal from the tower, “All clear”. The plane had been de-iced before ‘pushing back’, but during the long wait for clearance a thin sheet of ice froze the wings again. Other pilots coming in noticed the icing on the wings as the jet struggled to clear the end of the runway.
The final report indicated that the aircraft never rose out of a stall position from takeoff to the crash scene just a few miles away.
I have never witnessed any live rescue other than that being shot by TV cameras on that dreary afternoon. The bridge stood firm and just a tail portion of the plane could be seen frozen in the large chucks of cracked ice in the river that day. A helicopter was steady above the water, trying to fish a few survivors from certain death. One by one, they were hooked on the end of the cable and lifted to safety. It seemed they were taking turns at the option of being saved. They say one man named Arland Williams, passed the life harness on to others. A review of those who died in the crash revealed that Arland was the only one who died of drowning.
A stewardess was left to be lifted, but she was so near being unconscious, the harness, once in place, slipped off of her limp body and she drifted away very slowly with the current. Having been an amateur life guard, I was jumping up and down in our living room shouting at the screen, “Get her, get her, For God’s sake, somebody get her!” Everyone, police, fireman, and all the other professionals, just stood there, transfixed by the scene of one who had no hope.
Then it happened. A man in the crowd hit the water, clothes, shoes and all. He was not a policeman, or fireman or ambulance trained attendant. He was an answer to my shouting prayer. He was a clerk from a law office in Washington. He was an unknown face in the crowd. He hit the water swimming. The temperature of the water was that of ice. He reached the unnamed victim, and with her in tow made for the bank. He saved her from certain death, just seconds away. Before he got her safely to shore, another from the crowd had put his foot in the water to help lift her out. The rest perished from the shock and awe of the crash itself. Priscilla Triado, her stewardess uniform in shreds, was carefully laid in an ambulance and carried to the hospital. She survived..
It was a couple of weeks later, at a joint session of Congress, that President Ronald Reagan rose to speak. In his beginning words, he looked to the balcony and called out the name of the one who hit the cold waters of the Potomac that day. Mr. Lenny Skutnik, will you stand. The whole place stood up and with loud applause and shouts they looked at the unknown face that had stood on the banks of the river that day. While all were standing and looking, our President saluted him.
I was having my usual one hour nap today, when the memory of that day and horrific crash came flooding to my mind. What a hero Lenny was. In interviews, he readily admitted that the idea of being a hero never entered his mind. He saw a woman drowning, and went to save her. It was that simple.
The memory of that day and a few notes that I made was something I just had to write. What made Lenny any different than anyone of the hundreds who were witnessing the scene. I think you will be surprised when I say, It was the power of humility. Luke, the historian wrote, “And when they saw the courage (boldness) of Peter and John, and realized they were unschooled and ordinary men, they were astonished (amazed) and they took note that these men had been with Jesus” (Acts 4:13). Humility is when you forget yourself – It is courage, boldness, And will swim the old icy waters of a river when others just stand by and look.
What power and just think, it is available to each of us.