Survivors Remember Flight 90

ByABC News via logo

Aug. 5, 2002 -- It's been more than 20 years since Air Florida Flight 90 took off from National Airport and crashed onto a bridge in downtown Washington, then plunged into the icy waters of the Potomac River.

A voice recorder captured the final moments before the plane crashed on Jan. 13, 1982. Flight 90 never got higher than a few hundred feet, and the pilots saw the crash coming.

"Larry, we're going down, Larry," said First Officer Roger Pettit.

— I know it," said Capt. Larry Wheaton.

The Boeing 737 slammed into the 14th Street Bridge, shearing off the tops of cars, and then crashed into the icy river.

CNN had just introduced what became a new phenomenon — the 24-hour news channel. The cable network provided live images of survivors struggling in the water as viewers at home watched and waited for what they knew would be a devastating death toll.

Of those on board the plane, 74 people died. Five survived.

Flight attendant Kelly Duncan, the only crew members to survive, said the crash seemed unreal.

"My next feeling was that I was just floating through white and I felt like I was dying and I just thought I'm not really ready to die," she told ABCNEWS back in 1982.

Today Duncan, 43, is a preschool teacher at a Christian school. She is married with three children.

Joe Stiley told ABCNEWS in 1982, that the freezing water jarred him into consciousness.

Both Stiley and Duncan joined ABCNEWS' Good Morning America today for a look back at their amazing survival, against all odds.

‘I Wanted Out in the Worst Way’

Stiley, a pilot himself, said he realized that something was wrong as the plane headed down the runway. He said there was still snow and slush on the wings and he remembered wishing he could get off the plane.

"You could see out one side, but not really the other side," said Stiley, now 63. "I wanted out in the worst way."

Stiley suffered hypothermia, a broken arm, leg, a skull fracture, broken jaw and spinal injuries.

Duncan woke up in the hospital the morning after the crash without knowing what had really happened.

"When I was in intensive care I didn't have a TV but I could hear, off in the distance, Good Morning America. I heard [anchor] David Hartman's voice saying Air Florida and it got my attention. It was really through him I had heard we crashed into a bridge."

Priscilla Tirado, now 43, survived the crash, but lost her 2-month-old son and husband in the crash.

This past spring, two of the five survivors died of natural causes. Bert Hamilton died of a heart attack and Patricia Felch, Stiley's former administrative assistant, died of pancreatic cancer, just 2 ½ weeks after Hamilton's death. The New York Times Magazine featured the survivors' story this past Sunday.

A sixth person initially survived the crash but, according to U.S. Park Police helicopter rescuers, refused their lifeline, indicating it should go to the others. Arland Williams, 46, was the only victim of the crash who died of drowning, not trauma.

Williams' mother, Virginia, wrote to President Ronald Reagan, asking that her son be named as the hero. That letter prompted a Coast Guard investigation. More than a year after the crash, Williams was honored in an Oval Office ceremony.

The National Transportation Safety Board blamed the accident on the pilots' failure to abort the takeoff and have the wings properly de-iced. It also found the Air Florida crew didn't have the experience to question the captain.

As a result, the industry formalized a concept known as "crew resource management," which means if either pilot, but notably the co-pilot, spots trouble, he should voice it loudly. The crash prompted airlines to adopt strict policies ensuring inexperienced captains are paired with experienced co-pilots.

The Air Florida accident led to the carrier's eventual demise. It filed for bankruptcy and grounded its fleet in July 1984.

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