Friday, January 13, 2012

Memories of Plane Crash Still Vivid

Thirty years ago today, a plane hit the side of a bridge over the Potomac River and slid down into the icy water. Seventy-four people on the plane died. Only four were pulled to safety.

I was in an airport van on the opposite side of the bridge when it happened.

I was trying to get to the airport to fly home after attending a conference in Washington, D.C. The van also carried several pilots, all of whom were predicting an airport shutdown because of poor visibility and the icy sleet that was falling.
Sitting in traffic in that van, we heard on the radio that a plane had hit the 14th Street Bridge. One woman screamed, “We are on that bridge!” We had not seen the plane or felt the impact on the opposite side. As we inched along in the van, we did see people on the other side leaping out of their cars and throwing their coats into the water. We saw emergency vehicles stuck in traffic. We saw military helicopters flying in.

Once across the bridge, I asked the driver to let me out of the van. There was no point in going to the airport -- the radio announcer had already said it was closed. No one else seemed inclined to leave the van, but I insisted that the driver get my suitcase and let me out.

I slogged up a hill through the ice and snow and walked into a hotel. I tried to get a room, but was told the hotel was fully booked. I walked into the bar and ordered a shot of Jameson's, straight up. A man sat down next to me, leered and offered to let me sleep in his hotel room.

I slid off the bar stool and went to the bank of telephones, where there was a line. “Phone service is spotty,” said a woman whose call went through and then was cut off. When I got a phone, I called a man I had met at the conference, a man who worked in Washington as a lobbyist for the educational consortium my company was part of. I asked what he thought I should do. He told me to head back to my hotel in the city, that he would call and get my room back.

Next, I asked at the front desk where to catch the Metro. The desk clerk told me there had been an accident on the Metro -- that it was closed. I asked the clerk to call a cab for me. “A cab?” he said. “There will be no cabs, not with the airport and the bridge closed. And now the roads are closing, because of the ice storm.”

I went out the front door of the hotel, ready to walk back to my hotel. Suddenly a lone cab pulled up. The driver rolled down the window and said a name to me, a name I didn’t hear clearly, so I did not respond. The hotel doorman looked at me and said to the driver, "This is your passenger." He opened the door and I got in. It was just after dusk. Every tree branch was covered in ice. I remember driving past the Iwo Jima statue, which also was coated in ice.  

Back at my hotel, I couldn’t stop crying. I called a psychologist who had edited a book I had worked on for my company. I told him I had turned on the TV, where newscasters were pondering how long a person plunged into an icy river could survive. The psychologist told me to turn off the TV, find a co-worker and get something to eat, to sit and talk quietly in the presence of another human being, to breathe. I called the front desk and found a co-worker still at the hotel, someone I did not know well. We ate in the dining room. We talked about John Waters' movies.

Overnight, the power went out in the hotel, so there was no food the next morning and no hot water for a shower. I found another co-worker at a nearby hotel, and went there to clean up. Then we went to the airport together, to head back to St. Louis. As we flew directly over the crash site, I remember that every person on board paid careful attention to the flight attendant’s patter about emergency exits.

When my plane landed in St. Louis, I took a taxi straight to the Post-Dispatch. The editors knew me, as I had done some freelance work for them over the years. I told my story, and the editor let me write a first-person account, originally scheduled to run alongside the main piece by the paper's Washington bureau chief. My story never appeared -- but it helped to write it.

Writing this helps, too. I was 33 years old on January 13, 1982. I will never forget riding in an airport van when a plane hit the 14th Street Bridge and slid down into the icy waters of the Potomac River.

You can read about the crash here:

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