Divers from the U.S. Navy navigate the icy Potomac River, separating Washington, D.C., from Arlington, Virginia. They are performing the sobering task of searching for victims and wreckage from Air Florida Flight 90, the plane that crashed into the river two days earlier.
Photograph by PH1 Jim Preston, courtesy U.S. Department of Defense and the National Archives

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  • On January 13, 1982, an airplane crashed into a bridge in Washington, D.C., then plunged into the Potomac River. More than 70 passengers, crew, and motorists died in the crash, which was caused by poor weather conditions, poor decision-making by the company and crew, and poor traffic conditions.
    The snowy weather in Washington, D.C., had closed Washington National Airport until just hours before Air Florida Flight 90 was scheduled to leave for Fort Lauderdale, Florida. Ice built up on the plane’s wings and engines, and briefly prevented the plane from leaving its gate
    Poor decisions by the company and crew also contributed to the disaster. The company hired young pilots with little experience flying in snowy weather conditions. Machinery used to de-ice the plane did not meet the criteria demanded by the safety industry. The crew made the fatal decisions not to have the plane de-iced a second or third time, and not to activate the plane’s own de-icing mechanism. To do so would have delayed the flight, cost the company money, and inconvenienced their passengers.
    Finally, traffic conditions in the Washington, D.C., were busy. The crash took place at 4 o’clock, at the beginning of the evening rush hour. Many commuters were leaving early to avoid the snowy road conditions. Vehicles crowded the city’s roads, highways, and bridges. Just minutes after the Air Florida crash, Washington, D.C.’s mass transit system suffered its first fatal crash. This meant that crucial transportation methods—a major rail line, road, bridge, and air space—were diminished on January 13.
    Perhaps the most lasting impressions of the crash into the Potomac were the images of first responders and everyday citizens working to rescue survivors from the river. A United States Park Police helicopter lifted several people to safety. A bystander, Lenny Skutnik, bravely jumped into the icy Potomac to rescue a woman unable to swim to shore. 
    President Ronald Reagan honored the rescuers in his State of the Union address days later, with Skutnik invited to attend. Today, everyday Americans invited to attend the State of the Union speech are called “Lenny Skutniks.”
  • Term Part of Speech Definition Encyclopedic Entry
    briefly Adverb

    for a short time.

    bystander Noun

    onlooker, or a person present but not involved in an incident.

    commuter Noun

    person who travels between home and work.

    criteria Plural Noun

    set of standards or rules.

    crucial Adjective

    very important.

    delay Verb

    to put off until a later time.

    disaster Noun

    terrible and damaging event.

    engine Noun

    machine that converts energy into power or motion.

    fatal Adjective

    causing death.

    first responder Noun

    person likely to be the first to provide assistance at the scene of an emergency, such as firefighters or police.

    gate Noun

    passage that allows entry and exit to a plane, train, or ship.

    helicopter Noun

    aircraft that flies using rotating blades on top of the body of the craft.

    ice Noun

    water in its solid form.

    Encyclopedic Entry: ice
    impression Noun

    strong effect on emotions or thoughts.

    inconvenience Verb

    to disturb or bother.

    industry Noun

    activity that produces goods and services.

    machinery Noun

    mechanical appliances or tools used in manufacturing.

    mass transit Noun

    large-scale public transportation, such as buses or trains.

    mechanism Noun

    process or assembly that performs a function.

    motorist Noun

    person who drives or travels in a private vehicle.

    pilot Noun

    person who steers a ship or aircraft.

    plunge Verb

    to enter suddenly, especially into water.

    prevent Verb

    to keep something from happening.

    rescue Verb

    to free or save from danger.

    rush hour Noun

    time of the day when many people are in transit.

    schedule Noun

    set of time tables or deadlines for appointments or completion of tasks.

    snow Noun

    precipitation made of ice crystals.

    State of the Union address Noun

    speech given by the president of the U.S. every year, concerning his policies and plans.

    traffic Noun

    movement of many things, often vehicles, in a specific area.

    transportation Noun

    movement of people or goods from one place to another.

    vehicle Noun

    device used for transportation.

    weather Noun

    state of the atmosphere, including temperature, atmospheric pressure, wind, humidity, precipitation, and cloudiness.

    Encyclopedic Entry: weather