Panic on the Potomac

Ice on the river“Take it,” Arland Williams Jr. says through chattering teeth as he pushes the life line to the other three survivors of Air Florida Flight 90. Arland had caught the line extending from the helicopter, but unselfishly passed it on as he tried to extricate himself further from the wreckage. Snow continued to fall on their faces as it had for 20 minutes now.

These six survivors were the only ones to make it out of the horrible crash resulting 20 seconds after takeoff from Washington National  Airport during a Nor’easter blizzard on January 13, 1982. They shivered in the frigid river as they clung to the rear end of the plane that was just barely above the water line. This lifeline was the first real sign of hope, and the small band of survivors hoped they would be able to hold on to life until it was their turn to be saved. One of their group had just been taken to safety, but minutes seemed like hours in the subfreezing current.

As quick as he could Joe Stiley tried to anchor himself to the line and held onto Priscilla Tirado. A second line held Joe’s coworker Nikki Felch. The blocks of ice in the Potomac River continued to hit the bodies as they crossed to the shore. Before reaching the safety of land, Priscilla and Nikki fell back into the water. Numbed by freezing water, and blinded by jet fuel in the water, Priscilla groped for the life line and was finally able to hook one elbow in the life ring, but couldn’t hold on. She fell back in the river about 25 yards from the shore.

Precious time couldn’t be wasted.

Among dozens of onlookers that had gathered and were watching, Lenny Skutnik quickly pulled off his boots and coat, and jumped into the river and grabbed Priscilla as she sank below the icy water. Lenny pulled her up and then helped her the rest of the way to the shore where fire fighters were waiting to bring her ashore. He was actually the second civilian to enter the river that day in an effort to try and help the struggling victims. The other was Roger Olian who was still trying to reach the survivors just before the helicopter arrived.

The question now is, would you have jumped in?

The decision to jump in was not out of character, but a manifestation of character that was built by Lenny and Roger. It was the same character that was manifest when Arland passed up his chance to live, so someone else could be rescued. Character is built by the choices you make every day.

“Character isn’t built in 30 seconds. And difficult times don’t build character, they reveal it. You cannot dream yourself into a character; you must hammer and forge yourself one.”
– Henry David Thoreau

“Parents can only give good advice or put them on the right path, the final forming of a person’s character lies in their own hands.”
– Anne Frank

“Character is, for the most part, simply habit become fixed.”
– C. H. Parkhurst

For you:

Consider the world around you. You may be drowning, or you may be watching someone drown (metaphorically speaking). Are you watching and saying, “poor guy?” or are you willing to jump in and help? If you choose each day to help someone else, you are building a character of service and love that may realistically save a life one day.


I started writing short stories in elementary school, starting with a short story about twin track athletes. In college, I wrote for the college newspaper and studied communications. My first job out of college was with a magazine as an assistant editor, where I started a comic strip called City Boy. My first published work, was a short essay entitled, Dream with Me, published in “The Art of Service” booklet put out by the Thayne Center for Service and Learning. I also published a three part series for families called “Family Parables – Wise Man Foolish Man.” This set is designed to be used by families to create discussion and learning as a family. I soon will publish my first novel, Love Like Alzheimer’s, a story of a family that is learning to love deeper as their beloved grandmother struggles with Alzheimer’s disease.

2 thoughts on “Panic on the Potomac
  1. Catie says:

    I love Henry David Thoreau’s quote. Character is something we build for ourselves over time and it is in those difficult moments that our true character shines forth. Thanks for the story and reminder.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *