Washington D.C. has many monuments to heroes – George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, and Martin Luther King, Jr. to name a few. There are not many Americans who remember the name Arland Williams or who are familiar with the monument in his honor. Air Florida Flight 90 crewmember Kelly Duncan, and passengers Patricia Felch, Priscilla Tirado, Joseph Stiley, and Bert Hamilton will never forget his name, nor the sacrifices he made on January 13, 1982. It is hard to find words to describe his selfless actions in the icy waters of the Potomac River on that late Wednesday afternoon two miles from the White House.
Arland Dean Williams, Jr. was born September 23, 1935, in Mattoon, Illinois. After graduating from high school in 1953, he attended The Citadel Military College in Charleston, South Carolina, one of the nation’s most prestigious military institutions. Following graduation from The Citadel, Williams served two years in the military before starting a banking career, which led him to become a bank examiner for the Federal Reserve Bank in Atlanta.
On that particular January day in 1982, Williams, a veteran bank examiner, was in Washington for the unpleasant task of closing a key Florida bank. The weather forecast that day had called for rain with temperatures in the low 30’s; however, a low-pressure system tracked further south than predicted creating the fifth worst snowstorm in Capitol City history. With some flights already canceled, several of William’s colleagues opted to spend an additional night in town, but Williams headed to the airport.
After several weather delays and additional time to de-ice the plane, Air Florida Flight 90 took off from Reagan Washington Airport in a blinding snowstorm with 79 passengers and crew on board headed for Tampa. Seconds after takeoff, and less than a mile from the runway, the Boeing 737 clipped seven vehicles on the 14th Street Bridge, killing four people, before crashing nose first into the frozen Potomac River.
The tail-section of the plane broke off on impact and resurfaced about 30 yards from the riverbank, with 6 passengers miraculously clinging on for survival and screaming for help. Desperate motorists responded by trying to make ropes from jackets, clothes, and fan belts, but were unsuccessful in reaching the survivors. Several bystanders tried to swim to the wreckage but broken ice and shockingly cold water turned them back.
Twenty minutes after the crash, as daylight and hope for a rescue faded, a U.S. Park Service helicopter arrived on the scene. Fighting the blustering winds, the chopper lowered a lifeline and flotation ring, which Williams grabbed and handed to one of the women. After dragging her to paramedics on the bank, the chopper returned for another passenger. Again Williams reached for the ring and passed it to a second female passenger. The process of Williams passing the lifeline to other passengers would repeat itself five times. However, when the helicopter returned for Williams, he was gone – he had slipped beneath the frigid waters.
Arland Williams’ selflessness received national attention, both because of his heroics and because of his anonymity – it took several weeks before he was officially identified. Williams was the goodness and courage in every man. He was proof that no man is ordinary and that no man is powerless. His actions not only provided a lifeline to five total strangers, but he gave a lifeline to all who witnessed the tragedy and to the millions who would learn of it in the news.
Most of us live as though death is years away, or better yet will never come. Yet life can end in less time that it takes to draw another breath. What would we have done in Arland Williams’ shoes…when we had everything to lose? Would we have let others go ahead of us, waited to be the last man rescued? We will never know if we will be a hero, or a coward until we are staring death in the face. Williams’ final actions are hard to comprehend. Undoubtedly, he was desperate to live just like the others. What is the difference between a hero and a coward? There is very little difference. They both are afraid of dying. The difference is in the choices they make.
On March 13, 1985, three years after Arland Williams made the ultimate sacrifice for his fellow passengers, the 14th Street Bridge was renamed the Arland D. Williams, Jr. Memorial Bridge. Another Washington D.C. monument to a little known hero.
“What we do for ourselves dies with us. What we do for others remains and is immortal.” Albert Pine