Martin Leonard Skutnik III (born 1953 in Mississippi, known as Lenny) is an American former employee of the Congressional Budget Office. He is notable for an act of heroism which led to him being mentioned by President Ronald Reagan in the State of the Union Address, which coined the term Lenny Skutnik referring to notable people who are invited to sit in the gallery at a State of the Union address or other joint meeting of Congress. Skutnik has held various jobs as a painter, supermarket porter, and cook for the Burger Chef restaurant chain. He has also worked in a meat packing plant and in a furniture factory.
1982 act of heroism
Skutnik is a retired printing and distribution assistant for the Congressional Budget Office, generally known for his act of heroism following the crash of Air Florida Flight 90 into the Potomac River, Washington, D.C, on January 13, 1982. At the time, Skutnik was a U.S. government office assistant. During the rescue operation of passengers from the crashed plane, one passenger, Priscilla Tirado (who lost her husband and infant son in the plane crash), was too weak to grab the line dropped from a helicopter. Hundreds of people were watching, including emergency services personnel. Skutnik saw the situation, stripped off his coat and boots and, in short sleeves, dove into the icy water, swimming nearly 30 feet out to assist her. He succeeded in getting Tirado to the river shore, where she was subsequently taken to the hospital, saving her life.
For this act, Skutnik was invited to attend the 1982 State of the Union address by U.S. President Ronald Reagan on January 26, 1982. He was the first in what has become an annual tradition of notable people being invited to sit in the President's box at the State of the Union address. Skutnik sat next to First Lady Nancy Reagan. Reagan praised Skutnik as follows:
Just two weeks ago, in the midst of a terrible tragedy on the Potomac, we saw again the spirit of American heroism at its finest: the heroism of dedicated rescue workers saving crash victims from icy waters.
And, we saw the heroism of one of our young government employees, Lenny Skutnik, who, when he saw a woman lose her grip on the helicopter line, dived into the water and dragged her to safety.
Skutnik received a standing ovation from the entire assembled audience. Since then, others who are invited into the Presidential gallery and honored in the speech have been known among the Washington press corps as Lenny Skutniks. The Presidential gallery is sometimes referred to as "The Heroes' Gallery".
Among the honors that Skutnik received for his act of heroism are the United States Coast Guard's Gold Lifesaving Medal and the Carnegie Hero Fund Medal. He received 1600 pieces of mail over several weeks after the incident, a number of them addressed to "Lenny Skutnik, Hero of the Potomac". He also received various public tributes, including two "Lenny Skutnik Days" in Mississippi on February 9–10, 1982. On February 3, 1982, the General Assembly of the Commonwealth of Virginia unanimously passed a resolution in praise of Skutnik's "unselfish act of bravery", with a standing ovation.
On June 4, 2010, Skutnik retired from work for the U.S. government after 31 years of service.
- Shereikis, Richard, "Heroes Don't Need Zip Codes: Lenny Skutnik - Accidental Hero", in The Hero in Transition (Ray B. Browne, Marshall W. Fishwick, editors). Bowling Green University Popular Press, 1983 (ISBN 0-87972-237-1), pp. 107-114.
- Krebs, Albin; Thomas, Robert McG. (4 February 1982). "Notes on People: Rescuer Honored". New York Times. Retrieved 2009-01-19.
- "In a Moment of Horror, Rousing Acts of Courage". The Washington Post. 13 January 2007.
- Howell Raines (27 January 1982). "Reagan Vows to Keep Tax Cuts; Proposes $47 Billion Transfer of Social Programs to States". New York Times. Retrieved 2009-01-19.
- Francis X. Clines (24 August 1996). "Bonding as New Political Theater: Bring On the Babies and Cue the Yellow Dog". New York Times. Retrieved 2009-01-19.
- William Safire (8 July 2001). "The Way We Live Now: 07-08-01: On Language;". New York Times. Retrieved 2009-01-19.
- John M. Spratt, Jr., Recognizing Martin Leonard Skutnik,