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40 years ago today: Air Florida Flight 90 crashes into the Potomac River

WJLA – Washington D.C. logo WJLA – Washington D.C. 1/14/2022 7News Staff and Sam Ford

Thursday marks the 40th anniversary of the Air Florida Flight 90 crash into the Potomac River on January 13, 1982.

The plane, on a scheduled domestic passenger flight operated by the now-defunct Air Florida en route to Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport, went into the Potomac River after crashing into the 14th Street Bridge shortly after takeoff from Washington National Airport.

The death toll was 78, including 74 of the plane’s occupants. Five people – four passengers and one crew member – who were on the plane survived after several daring rescues in an icy Potomac. Four people in cars on the bridge were hit by the plane and died.

The National Transportation Safety Board determined that the cause of the accident was a pilot error due to ice on the wings. The plane had not been de-iced for a significant amount of time when the pilot chose to take off just before 4 p.m.

Around that time, two then 7News photographers Chester Panzer and George Patterson were headed home after a shoot about the airport being shut down by bad weather. The assignment desk turned them around and Panzer, the camera operator that day, recorded images seen around the world as first responders and a passerby named Leonard Skutnik worked feverously to save lives of those who managed to get out of the submerged airplane.

Now retired photographers Chester Panzer and Pege Gilgannon relived the day.

© Provided by WJLA – Washington D.C.
Caption: Now retired photographers Chester Panzer and Pege Gilgannon relived January 13, 1982 and the Air Florida Flight 90 plane crash. (7News)

Around four to eight inches of snow fell in the Washington, D.C. area on that day.

Passengers Patricia "Nikki" Felch, Joe Stiley, Priscilla Tirado and Bert Hamilton and flight attendant Kelly Duncan were the survivors of the crash. A sixth person, passenger Arland D. Williams Jr., initially survived the crash but drowned before he could be rescued after allowing the other survivors to be saved first.

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One of the 14th Street bridges was renamed the Arland D. Williams Jr. Memorial Bridge in 1983 in his honor.

Roughly 30 minutes after Air Florida Flight 90 crashed, three others were also killed and 25 more injured when an Orange Line Metro train derailed between the Federal Triangle and Smithsonian stations. Response to the Metro incident was slowed due to emergency personnel already responding to the plane crash.

For a complete look at the Air Florida Flight 90 disaster, watch the videos below:

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