January 13, 1982, saw 6.5 inches of snow fall on Washington, D.C. In spite of the foul weather, officials at National Airport decided to open the airport to traffic around noon. One of the outbound flights that afternoon was Air Florida Flight 90, which would stop in Tampa before reaching its final destination in Fort Lauderdale.
Even though the temperature was below freezing, the pilots did not activate the engines’ de-icing systems. The co-pilot repeatedly relayed instrument warnings to the captain, who was convinced that all conditions were fine. But the plane took 800 meters longer than it should have to take off, and only reached an altitude of 350 feet before the plane came crashing down onto the 14th Street Bridge, killing four motorists on the bridge and injuring four more.
Of the 79 passengers and crew on board, 73 were killed instantly. Six survived (five passengers and one flight attendant) and were able to escape the wreckage into the below-freezing Potomac River. Twenty minutes after the crash, a U.S. Park Police helicopter arrived to rescue the stranded passengers and hovered over the wreckage with a life preserver attached to a line.
After rescuing one of the passengers, Bert Hamilton, the line was passed to Arland D. Williams, Jr., a 46-year-old bank examiner for the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta and divorced father of two who was well-known within his family and social circles for being afraid of open water his entire life. As he clung to the wreckage, Williams passed the rescue line to flight attendant Kelly Duncan so she could be rescued. When the line was twice thrown back to Williams, he passed it to two more of the survivors. One of the survivors was rescued by bystander Lenny Skutnik.
When the rescue helicopter finally went back for Williams, the last in the water, he was nowhere to be found. He had been dragged under the surface by the sinking aircraft tail to which he had been clinging. When rescuers found his body, his lungs were full of water, which indicated that he was the only victim of the crash who died by drowning. It took several days to identify the hero who put his fellow passengers’ lives before his own. Until he was positively identified, the press referred to him simply as “the man in the water.”
Williams, a graduate of the Citadel in South Carolina, was posthumously awarded the U.S. Coast Guard’s Gold Lifesaving Medal by President Ronald Reagan, received by his parents, sister, and his son and daughter in a White House Ceremony. The following year, the 14th Street Bridge was renamed the Arland D. Williams Jr. Memorial Bridge in his honor. Williams has also been posthumously honored with scholarships and fellowships at both his alma mater and in his hometown of Mattoon, Illinois.
Williams is widely recognized as the hero of Air Florida Flight 90 and stands out for demonstrating exceptional heroism and bravery for putting three people’s lives before his own. But as his fiancee put it, “That was Arland.”
Know Before You Go
Williams is buried in Dodge Grove Cemetery in Mattoon, in his family's plot located at Section 12, Division B, Plot 12.