First Down

January 13, 1982.

So remember that Polar Vortex we experienced last week? Well, imagine being stuck in that with no coat. Add that your clothes (and entire body) are soaked in ice water and that snow is falling hard . . . all this because the plane you were on slammed into a bridge and hit the river you are now drowning in.

That happened on this day 32 years ago.

Amid that tragedy is a guy who might be called a hero. Now, I am not someone who has many heroes in my life. The list is short and includes my father, my eldest son, Malik El-Hajj El-Shabazz (Malcolm X), the unknown postman (he is for another day), and a guy named Lenny Skutnik.

Now while the first two might be understandable and the third is well-known, there is Lenny – Martin Leonard Skutnik III to be exact but I have always known him as Lenny although I have never met him.

Just a guy.

On his way home from work, he became one of many bystanders on the side of the Potomac River watching a tragedy unfold. A passenger plane had crashed amid afternoon traffic and was sinking into the river.

Air Florida Flight 90 had just taken off from Washington National Airport but something went horribly wrong and it stalled, careening into the Potomac, killing four people who were in their cars just sitting in traffic before bulleting into the river.

As the snow fell, the crowd that instinctively gathered saw about a half dozen people floating in the water. What no one knew then was that all but one of those people in the river were going to be the only survivors of that crash. 79 people on board, 5 survivors.

For 20 minutes, the six people were in freezing water trying to stay afloat (and alive) before help in the form of a rescue helicopter arrived.

Immediately, it dropped its life ring which was tied to a lifeline and picked up the first of the survivors, Bert Hamilton, carrying him to the river bank.

The second time around the helicopter dropped its ring to Arland Williams Jr. There was a problem, though, because Arland was trapped in his seat by a combination of his own seatbelt and airplane wires. Perhaps knowing that every second mattered, he threw the line to another person in the water, flight attendant Kelly Duncan, as he continued to struggle to break free. She was carried to safety.

The helicopter returned a third time with two lifelines and, again, dropped them next to Arland. Once again, he threw them to another person in the water. This time it was to Joe Stiley, who was holding onto the only two other people in the water; Priscilla Tirado and Nikki Felch. Both of Joe’s ankles and feet were broken . . . so was his arm . . . so were his fingers . . . and so were his ribs, but he still held onto them both as the helicopter began its trek back to shore.

Joe lost his grip on Nikki as the helicopter dragged him – and for a while – he held onto Priscilla across huge sheets of broken ice that made the 30 feet to the shoreline feel like it was a mile away. But his damaged body could only do so much and Priscilla slipped from his grasp.

Priscilla Tirado was on the plane with her husband and their newborn child. As is the custom, children under two-years-old were carried by their parent or guardian on their lap. Priscilla did just that until her 9-week-old son was pulled from her arms upon impact and she could not find her husband. She also could not see since she was temporarily blinded by jet fuel. Having lost her grip of Joe, Priscilla flailed about on a sheet of ice after numerous unsuccessful attempts of trying to grab onto the lifeline being thrown to her. Her eyes and body showed fear and panic and heartbreak (her baby and husband did not survive). Trying feebly to hold on time after time she slipped off the only security she had, a large sheet of ice, and slipped into the water. She started to drown as the cold and physical exhaustion began to take their final toll on her.

And then there was Lenny.

He was part of a crowd of people who looked in horror and sadness and if Lenny ended up not doing what he did, no one would have blamed him.

But, he did.

He took off his coat and boots and, in his jeans and short sleeve shirt, jumped in. Swimming almost 30 feet in freezing water, he reached Priscilla and swam back with her to the shore, saving her life.

Imagine that for a second.

Swimming with nothing on but jeans & a shirt while holding onto another person for 30 feet in – basically – liquified ice that is draining heat and life out of both you.

30 feet.

10 yards.

Good enough for a first down.

A chance to start again.

Just because, according to him, “I was just someone who helped another human being.”

He pulled Priscilla to shore.

Nikki was still in the water wearing a life preserver on but after 30 minutes in ice water, her strength was drained. The helicopter crew got to the waterline and paramedic Gene Windsor pulled her up by standing on the copter’s skid and brought her to shore.

The helicopter returned for the man strapped into his seat who had instinctively given his lifeline to others but he was gone. Reports would later show that Arland Williams was the only victim to have died by drowning. He was alive as the plane he was attached to sank.

It is easy to romanticize the events of that day but it was just a couple of guys helping out. Arland Williams probably knew that every second the helicopter waited for him meant a lifetime to the others waiting in the water.

And as for Lenny? Well, to this day Priscilla Tirado has been reluctant to talk about the crash and has not given any public comment in years. There were reports that on the five-year anniversary of the crash she was arrested for DWI and possession of drugs – not a storybook ending but the reality of loss that emotionally paralyzes. A decade after the crash she would not even speak with anyone and her father told The Washington Post, “After 10 years, we’re beginning to wonder if this will ever work itself out.”

It has been reported that Priscilla still struggles and has some good days. When Lenny went in, he did so not knowing if what he did would help, not knowing that Priscilla would struggle with her devastating loss, not really knowing anything other than he wanted to help another human being.

Whenever I give into those moments when the selfishness in this world leaves me at a loss, I think of that day, I think of Joe and Gene, I think of Arland, but mostly I think of Lenny. Just a guy, a person, who helped.

He carried her 10 yards. Good enough for a first down. Giving her a chance to keep going.

In the end, I guess, it is the best we can do. And that’s not bad at all.