12/21/04: Lenny Skutnik(1982)

It was a dreadful story. An Air Florida flight had plowed into the 14th Street Bridge here in Washington. The only saving grace was the heroism of one man; and we dispatched our chief booking producer, Susan Mercandetti, to see if she could get him to come on "Nightline:"

From "Nightline," Jan. 13, 1982:

SUSAN MERCANDETTI : So we all piled into trucks and the trucks got stuck. I jumped out of the truck, it was snowing. Snow up to mid-calf and I had heels on and sling backs. I remember because my feet were frozen. I jumped out of the truck and I ran

I ran to the bridge and as I got to the bridge, they were pulling this guy out of the water, who we then learned it was Lenny Skutnik. I got back to the bureau and I said to my secretary at the time-

TED KOPPEL : And we have to explain to people, Lenny Skutnik had not been on the plane. He was a bystander who was on the banks of the Potomac River.

MERCANDETTI : He was driving his car.

KOPPEL: He was driving his car and he stopped and he saw this young stewardess who was hanging onto some piece of floating wreckage and he jumped into the river, swam out and saved her life.

MERCANDETTI: Saved her life.

KOPPEL: He was a remarkable man.

MERCANDETTI: And so, I came back to the bureau and I said to my secretary, we had learned somewhere, where he lived, and I said get a car, go to his house and bring him back. To be interviewed. And I said don't come back without him.

KOPPEL: And the next morning in The Washington Post?

MERCANDETTI: He does this very tearful interview about how he didn't want to be a hero, he didn't want to do an interview, but he didn't want this poor girl to lose her job because some tyrant producer boss of hers ...

KOPPEL: Oh, no, no, no, no, at that time, it was Ted Koppel had threatened to fire her if she didn't bring him back.

MERCANDETTI: It was awful. It was awful, I felt so terrible and I said to her, the secretary, said, 'Why did you say it?' and she said, 'Well, you told me not to come back without him.'

He really was a reluctant hero; but a few days later we saw him again ... as President Reagan's guest sitting near the first lady at the State of the Union.

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