Fatal Air Florida crash remains a painful memory after 10 years Ice-laden plane crashed into the Potomac; 78 died.


FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. -- "Palm 90" probably wouldn't be remembered as one of the most horrifying air disasters if a handful of heroes had not saved a few survivors from the icy Potomac River.

But this was real-life drama, a story of tragedy and triumph, captured on camera in the nation's capital.

In turn, "Palm 90," the air traffic control code name for Air Florida's Flight 90, is still a vivid memory 10 years later for many across the country. It crashed Jan. 13, 1982, killing 78, including four on the ground.

"How do you describe something like this? Besides the heartache, it changes people's lives," said Fred Burka of Fort Lauderdale, father-in-law of victim Jane Burka.

The twin-engine 737-200 took off from Washington National Airport at 4 p.m. on that Wednesday in a heavy snowstorm. It was bound for Tampa and Fort Lauderdale.

The moment the jet left the ground, the nose pitched up dangerously.

About 30 seconds later, during rush hour, it rammed into the 14th Street Bridge. It crushed six cars and a truck, killing four. Then it plunged into 25 feet of cold, murky water.

Of the 79 on board, four passengers and one crew member survived. Most were from the Washington area, 21 were from Florida and 13 were headed to Fort Lauderdale.

Only the plane's mangled tail section rose above the surface, a ghastly monument to the people who died in sudden terror and confusion.

Because the plane went down in Washington, one of the media centers of the world, it was one of the most heavily covered air disasters in history. And one of the main angles was heroism.

Within minutes of the crash, the nation was able to watch on television as four people were pulled from the Potomac by a U.S. Park Police helicopter. Its two pilots received the highest honors from the Interior Department and the Coast Guard.

Lenny Skutnik, a bystander, became an instant hero when he jumped into 34-degree water and rescued a passenger. He later received a standing ovation from President Reagan and Congress.

Another man, at first an unidentified survivor, became a tragic hero because he passed along the rope from the rescue helicopter to other survivors. When it was finally his turn, Arland Williams of Atlanta had drowned.

Several factors contributed to the accident, but the bottom line was pilot error, according to the National Transportation Safety Board.

The board concluded that Capt. Larry Wheaton and First Officer Roger Pettit, two young and inexperienced pilots, did not have the plane's wings properly de-iced.

More critically, authorities said, they did not flick on an engine anti-ice switch, causing false power readings. As a result, the plane took off with 80 percent of the power needed for takeoff.

The biggest mistake of all, according to the NTSB: The pilots failed to abort the takeoff, even when they knew things were not right.

Cockpit tapes revealed that the pilots laughed about their snowy dilemma.

"Boy, this is a losing battle here trying to de-ice these things," co-pilot Pettit, 31, said to Wheaton just before takeoff. "It gives you a false sense of security. That's all that does."

"That . . . satisfies the feds," replied Wheaton, 34.

As a result of Flight 90, the NTSB made numerous recommendations to the Federal Aviation Administration on how to better de-ice planes, as well as how to improve cockpit management.

Also as a result, fearful fliers are still steering clear of airplane rides. There have been several other more deadly air disasters in the past decade, but Flight 90 remains one of the most memorable.

That is because the intense media coverage gave them all the evidence they needed to conclude that flying is dangerous, said Slim Cummings, a former Pan Am pilot who offers a fear of flying course.

"There's their proof: people in the water, drowned, depicted in all its glory," he said.

In the aftermath, the survivors settled back into their lives, but not without difficulty.

Every Jan. 13 is depressing for Priscilla Tirado, who lost her 9-week-old son and husband in the crash. She was arrested in Clearwater in 1987, on the fifth anniversary of the crash, charged with driving under the influence and possessing drugs.

"This is always a bad day, I can't help it," she said at the time.

Within two years of the incident, NBC came out with the television movie "Flight 90: Disaster on the Potomac." The premise, according to NBC executives, was to show how the human spirit can rise up to overcome tragedy.

And today, 10 years later, the crash still fills families and friends of the victims with sadness and anger.

Harry and Mildred Silberglied of Margate lost their only son, Dr. Robert Silberglied, a respected scientist who was 35.

"It was the most stupid flight and pilot you've ever come across," said Mildred Silberglied, quivering between rage and tears. "There's nothing worse than losing your child. And it gets worse as time goes on."

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