Arland D. Williams, Jr.
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|Arland Dean Williams, Jr.|
September 23, 1935|
|Died||January 13, 1982
|Alma mater||The Citadel, The Military College of South Carolina|
|Known for||Hero of Air Florida Flight 90|
|Awards||United States Coast Guard's Gold Lifesaving Medal|
Arland Dean Williams Jr. (September 23, 1935 – January 13, 1982) was a passenger aboard Air Florida Flight 90, which crashed on take-off in Washington, D.C., on January 13, 1982, killing 78 people. One of just six people to survive the crash, he helped the other five escape the sinking plane before succumbing to his injuries.
In the words of a clergyman,
- His heroism was not rash. Aware that his own strength was fading, he deliberately handed hope to someone else, and he did so repeatedly. On that cold and tragic day, Arland D. Williams Jr. exemplified one of the best attributes of human nature, specifically that some people are capable of doing anything for total strangers.
The 14th Street Bridge over the Potomac River at the crash site was renamed in his honor.
Williams grew up in Illinois and graduated from high school in Mattoon, where he acquired the nickname "Chub." He subsequently attended The Citadel in South Carolina. According to his high school girlfriend, Williams had been nervous about The Citadel's swimming requirement, as he had always had a fear of water and "didn't know if he could overcome it to push through that test." After graduation he served two years in the military in a stateside post and then went into banking, eventually becoming a bank examiner.
Air Florida Flight 90
On January 13, 1982, during an extraordinary period of freezing weather, Air Florida Flight 90 took off from nearby Washington National Airport, failed to gain altitude, and crashed into the 14th Street Bridge, where it hit six cars and a truck on the bridge, killing four motorists.
After the devastating crash on the bridge, the plane then continued forward and plunged into the freezing Potomac River. Soon only the tail section which had broken off remained afloat. Only six of the airliner's 79 occupants (74 passengers and 5 crew members) survived the initial crash and were able to escape the sinking plane in the middle of the ice-choked river.
After the crash
News cameramen watched helplessly from the bridge, recording the disaster for the rest of the world to see. There appeared to be no way to reach the survivors in the water. Bystanders helped as fellow passerby Roger Olian with a makeshift rope began an attempt to rescue them. Then, hope arrived at about 4:20 p.m. EST when Eagle 1, a United States Park Police helicopter based at Anacostia Park in Washington, D.C., and manned by pilot Donald W. Usher and paramedic Melvin E. (Gene) Windsor, arrived and assisted with the rescue operation at great risk to themselves. At one point in the operation the helicopter's skids dipped beneath the surface of the icy water.
According to the other five survivors, one passenger continued to help the others reach the rescue ropes being dropped by the hovering helicopter, repeatedly passing the line to others instead of using it himself. While the other five were being taken to shore by the helicopter, the tail section of the wrecked Boeing 737 shifted and sank further into the water, dragging Williams under the water with it.
The next day, the Washington Post described his heroism:
|“||He was about 50 years old, one of half a dozen survivors clinging to twisted wreckage bobbing in the icy Potomac when the first helicopter arrived. To the copter's two-man Park Police crew he seemed the most alert. Life vests were dropped, then a flotation ball. The man passed them to the others. On two occasions, the crew recalled last night, he handed away a life line from the hovering machine that could have dragged him to safety. The helicopter crew – who rescued five people, the only persons who survived from the jetliner – lifted a woman to the riverbank, then dragged three more persons across the ice to safety. Then the life line saved a woman who was trying to swim away from the sinking wreckage, and the helicopter pilot, Donald W. Usher, returned to the scene, but the man was gone.||”|
—"A Hero – Passenger Aids Others, Then Dies", The Washington Post, January 14, 1982.
|“||So the man in the water had his own natural powers. He could not make ice storms, or freeze the water until it froze the blood. But he could hand life over to a stranger, and that is a power of nature too. The man in the water pitted himself against an implacable, impersonal enemy; he fought it with charity; and he held it to a standoff. He was the best we can do.||”|
—Rosenblatt, R., "The Man in the Water," Time Magazine, January 25, 1982.
The four other heroes of the Air Florida rescue who also risked their lives but survived were honored shortly after the disaster.
It took some time to investigate and establish without any doubt Williams' identity and extraordinarily heroic and selfless behavior. His actions caused him to stand out even among the other four outstanding heroes of that tragic day.
On June 6, 1983, Williams was posthumously awarded the United States Coast Guard's Gold Lifesaving Medal in a White House Oval Office presentation to his family by U.S. President Ronald Reagan and U.S. Secretary of Transportation Elizabeth H. Dole. Mrs. Virginia Williams accepted the medal on her son's behalf. Other participants in the ceremony included the recipient's father, Arland, his children, Arland III and Leslie Ann, and his sister, Jean Fullmer. Also present were Vice Admiral Benedict L. Stabile, Vice Commandant of the United States Coast Guard, Senator Charles H. Percy and Representative Daniel B. Crane of Illinois.
As a lasting tribute, the repaired 14th Street Bridge over the Potomac River at the crash site, which had been officially named the "Rochambeau Bridge," was renamed the "Arland D. Williams Jr. Memorial Bridge" in his honor by the city government of the District of Columbia in 1983.
On May 15, 1993, former U.S. President Ronald Reagan retold the story of Arland D. Williams Jr. and paid tribute to him during a commencement address at The Citadel, The Military College of South Carolina.
In 2000, The Citadel, The Military College of South Carolina — and Williams' alma mater (Class of 1957) — created the Arland D. Williams Society to recognize graduates who distinguished themselves through community service. The Citadel also established the Arland D. Williams Endowed Professorship of Heroism in his honor.
- Christopher Mcdougall. "The hidden cost of heroism". NBC News. Retrieved December 9, 2012.
- Roger Rosenblatt (January 25, 1982). "The Man in the Water". Time Magazine. Retrieved December 9, 2012.