January 13, 1982
. Washington, D.C.
was hit by a blizzard
of epic proportions
that shut down the entire city in rolling snowstorm
s, one after another. Aircraft
were stuck on the ground at National Airport
, when several flights were finally cleared for takeoff
by air traffic control
Air Florida flight 90, a Boeing 737 bound for Fort Lauderdale Hollywood International Airport, was scheduled to depart at 2:15 PM. The ground crew elected to board the aircraft at 2:30, while snowplows were going over the main runway. Captain Larry Wheaton shut off the de-icing equipment while the aircraft waited.
Finally, at 3:00, the runway opened and aircraft were cleared for departure. Flight 90 resumed its de-icing procedures, and was cleared for departure at 3:23. However, there was still a ton of snow on the tarmac, and the airport's tug couldn't push the 737 out of the gate. Wheaton tried to back the aircraft out with its thrust reversers (a dangerous maneuver in its own right), but the plane still wouldn't budge. Finally, the airport brought in a tug with snow chains on its tires, and the aircraft finally departed the gate.
Wheaton pulled in line behind a Douglas DC-9, and used the other plane's engine exhaust to melt the ice that was building on his wings. Incredibly enough, he never turned on the aircraft's de-icing equipment during the taxi, even though snow was falling outside.
Flight 90 took off at 4:00. Ice had built up on the probe that measured engine pressure, and so the pilots thought the aircraft's engines were producing more thrust than was actually the case. To compound the problem, ice on the wings pulled the aircraft's nose up: both problems fit together quite perfectly for a stall, and the aircraft, refusing to fly, slammed into the Rochambeau Bridge over the Potomac River.
4:00 was rush hour in Washington, as many federal employees had been allowed to leave work early. As Flight 90's tail clipped the bridge, it killed four people on the ground and injured four more. Its fuselage split into several pieces, which sank to the bottom of the ice-covered Potomac, sentencing 74 people on board to death from drowning and hypothermia.
Authorities closed both the Rochambeau and neighboring George Washington Parkway to mount a futile rescue effort. In the meantime, underneath The Mall, a D.C. Metro train had derailed on the Blue/Orange subway line between Federal Triangle and Smithsonian stations. Within one day, the District had lost its main airport, subway line, and highway artery: many commuters were so hopelessly stranded that they gave up and booked hotel rooms for the night.
In the meantime, six survivors of the crash of Flight 90 clung to pieces of wreckage floating amid the ice on top of the Potomac. One of the passengers, a 50-year-old man, helped four other passengers and a flight attendant to get into the harness of the rescue helicopter. When it was his turn to be pulled out of the water, he was nowhere to be found. Today, Rochambeau Bridge bears his name, and is called the Arland D. Williams, Jr. Memorial Bridge.
On a more interesting (and demented) sidenote: Howard Stern caused a minor uproar in DC over the Air Florida disaster. The Monday following the crash, he called the Air Florida reservation desk during his morning show, inquiring as to whether the 14th street bridge would become a regularly scheduled stop in the future. When the booking agent replied in the negative, he asked for the price of a one-way ticket from National Airport to the bridge, adding, "do you guys serve ice in your drinks?" These shenanigans undoubtedly contributed to the radio station's decision not to extend his contract later that year...