Recollections and Thoughts from Air Florida Flight 90 First Responders, 30 Years Later

At the National Law Enforcement Museum’s most recent Witness to History event, San Antonio Police Chief William McManus shared his experiences as a law enforcement first responder following the Air Florida Flight 90 crash of January 13, 1982, in Washington, DC. Chief McManus’s memories were featured in a Museum Insider article, “Witness to History: Air Florida Flight 90 Crash, January 13, 1982,” which sparked other first responders to share their recollections of this tragic event.

On January 13, 1982, shortly before 4:00 p.m. on a snowy winter day, Air Florida Flight 90 (called “Palm 90” by air traffic control that day) took off from National Airport, located along the Potomac River. Ice-clogged sensors prevented the Boeing 737 from reaching the proper altitude and about a mile after takeoff it slammed into the top of the 14th Street Bridge, ripping into pieces as it plunged into the ice-covered river. Only five people on board the aircraft survived; the other 74 passengers and crew perished, as did four motorists commuting on the bridge.

Don Usher, a United States Park Police (USPP) pilot, responded to the disaster in Eagle 1, a Bell single-rotor helicopter. Mr. Usher recalled the frigid weather as the biggest challenge the rescue operations faced. “The water temperature was very cold,” he recounted. “The passengers had been in the water 20 minutes when we arrived. The rescues took 10 minutes longer.”

The rescue operations were also hampered by the lack of appropriate rescue equipment available to the USPP. He wrote, “During the Palm 90 incident, our rescue equipment was limited to several ‘throwballs’ that inflated into small circular life rings, a tow strap from the helicopter, and a borrowed ring buoy and line we obtained from a fire unit on the scene along the Potomac.” Mr. Usher noted that, because of the Air Florida crash, the U.S. Park Police subsequently purchased—and used extensively—several rescue nets for water rescue operations.

In 1982, Jim Boyd, an officer with the District Heights Police Department in Prince George’s County, Maryland, and a volunteer underwater team rescue diver for the County Fire Department, joined the disaster response efforts. Like Mr. Usher, Mr. Boyd understood that the cold and threat of hypothermia for the crash survivors were their biggest challenges. As a rescue diver, he vividly recalled that what stood out to him “…was how cold you could get even in a dry suit after 10 minutes in the water and how difficult it was to warm up before doing it again.” Profoundly affected by the events of that day, Mr. Boyd said recovering the bodies of the airline passengers who lost their lives was life-changing and still haunts him today.

Through the reflections of these first responders, it’s evident that the Air Florida disaster deeply affected those involved in the rescue and recovery efforts. Chief McManus called it the “most horrific event” of his career, until the events of 9/11 and the plane crashed into the Pentagon. Mr. Usher regretted that neither he nor other rescuers were able to save the life of Arland Williams, the heroic “last passenger” who kept passing the helicopter life ring to other survivors in the icy cold waters of the Potomac River. Mr. Boyd said that if he could go back, he would have “prayed a lot more for the safety” of all those involved.