30 Years Ago

Just seconds after takeoff from DC’s National Airport, Air Florida Flight 90 hit the Fourteenth Street Bridge like a wrecking ball, destroying seven cars, killing four people, and tearing away a section of the bridge wall. The plane broke into a dozen pieces on impact.

The anniversary has me thinking back to the story of one person who happened by the crash site on Jan. 13, 1982. The man who jumped into the river when no one of sound mind would. From the heroism chapter of The Unthinkable:

The snow started out lovely, blurring the edges of Washington’s hard buildings and bleaching the memorials storybook white. But by midafternoon, it had turned unforgiving.

Great groaning piles of snow fell from the sky like mud. Government employees were liberated early, stacking the city’s streets with traffic. Normally, it took Roger Olian, a sheet-metal worker at St. Elizabeth’s Hospital, half an hour to get home. On this day, after driving for two hours, he was only halfway there. It would have been faster to walk.

By the time he got to the Fourteenth Street Bridge, which crosses over the Potomac River from D.C. into Virginia, Olian’s old red Datsun pickup truck was protesting. It had needed a new battery for a while and now it was desperately low on gas, too. Worried the car might stall and never start again, Olian kept the radio and the windshield wipers off.

When the Boeing 737 sliced into the bridge span next to him at 4:01 P.M., Olian didn’t even see it. Encased in his snow-covered truck, he didn’t hear or feel the crash. It was only when the car in front of him stopped that Olian had any indication that something strange had happened. The driver got out and walked back to his truck. Olian rolled down his window, and the man’s shouts jangled through the snowbound quiet.

“Did you see that?”

“What’s that?”

“A plane! A plane just crashed into the river!” the man screamed.

Olian dismissed him. “I thought, ‘This guy is nuts.’ All I wanted to do was to get out of there.”

But the man kept yelling. “I think that plane might explode!” “So get in your car and go!” Olian told him, rolling up his window. The man did as he was told. But as Olian started to follow him, he noticed that the other cars were behaving oddly too. “It was as if you’d dropped food into the middle of an anthill and all of a sudden the ants started to move in weird ways. So I thought,‘Maybe that guy was right.’”

Without thinking too much about what he was doing or how he would start his truck again, Olian eased over to the shoulder and parked. If a plane had gone down without him even noticing, he thought, it must have been a small private plane. “Well, maybe I could see what’s going on,” he said to himself. “Or maybe somebody needs help, maybe I could do something—some nominal thing, and it will be interesting.”