Remembering Arland D. Williams, hero of the Florida Air crash 38 years ago

« Previous story
Next story »
Remembering Arland D. Williams, hero of the Florida Air crash 38 years ago

I still remember this story pretty clearly, since it was the first time I had ever heard of "The Citadel", the school that would later become my alma mater.

On January 13, 1982, an Air Florida Boeing 737-222 plunges into the Potomac River in Washington, D.C., killing 78 people. The crash, caused by bad weather, took place only two miles from the White House.

The Air Florida flight took off from Washington National Airport in Arlington, Virginia, with 74 passengers and 5 crew members on board. The plane had flown into Washington from Miami in the early afternoon and was supposed to return to Ft. Lauderdale, Florida, after a short stop. However, snow in Washington temporarily closed the airport. When it reopened, the plane was de-iced with chemical anti-freeze, but the plane still had difficulty moving away from the gate due to the ice. When it eventually made it to the airport’s only usable runway, it was forced to wait 45 minutes for clearance to take off...

Thirty seconds later, the plane crashed into the 14th Street Bridge over the Potomac River, less than a mile away from the runway. Seven vehicles traveling on the bridge were struck by the 737 and the plane fell into the freezing water. It was later determined that 73 of the people on board the plane died from the impact, leaving only six survivors in the river. In addition, four motorists died in the crash.

A Time Magazine article would later publish the story about the "Man in the Water."

But the person most responsible for the emotional impact of the disaster is the one known at first simply as “the man in the water.” (Balding, probably in his 50s, an extravagant mustache.) He was seen clinging with five other survivors to the tail section of the airplane. This man was described by Usher and Windsor as appearing alert and in control. Every time they lowered a lifeline and floating right to him, he passed it on to another of the passengers. “In a mass casualty, you’ll find people like him,” said Windsor, “But I’ve never seen one with that commitment.” When the helicopter came back for him the man had done under. His selflessness was one reason the story held national attention; his anonymity another. The fact that he went unidentified invested him with a universal character. For a while he was Everyman, and thus proof (as if one needed it) that no man is ordinary.

Still, he could never have imagined such a capacity in himself. Only minutes before his character was tested, he was sitting in the ordinary plane among the ordinary passengers, dutifully listening to the stewardess telling him to fasten his seat belt and saying something about the “no smoking sign.” So our man relaxed with the others, some of whom would owe their lives to him. Perhaps he started to read, or to doze, or to regret some harsh remark made in the office that morning. Then suddenly he knew that the trip would not be ordinary. Like every other person on that flight, he was desperate to live, which makes his final act so stunning.

For at some moment in the water he must have realized that he would not live if he continued to hand over the rope and ring to others. He had to know it, no matter how gradual the effect of the cold. In his judgment he had no choice. When the helicopter took off with what was to be the last survivor, he watched everything in the world move away from him, and he deliberately let it happen.

Yet there was something else about the man that kept our thoughts on him still. He was there, in the essential, classic circumstance. Man in nature. The man in the water. For its part, nature cared nothing about the five passengers. Our man, on the other hand, cared totally. So the timeless battle commenced in the Potomac. For as long as that man could last, they went at each other, nature and man: the one making no distinctions of good and evil, acting on no principals, offering no lifelines; the other acting wholly on distinctions, principles and one supposes, of faith.

That man would later be identified as Arland D. Williams.

President Reagan announced yesterday that a 46-year-old bank examiner from Atlanta was the "mystery hero" of last year's Air Florida crash -- the man who passed a lifeline to others before drowning in the ice-covered Potomac River.

The president disclosed that a Coast Guard investigation determined that Arland D. Williams Jr., an employe of the Federal Reserve system, "was the hero who gave his life that others might live.

"You can live with tremendous pride. . . ," Reagan told Williams' parents and his two children as he posthumously awarded Williams the Coast Guard's Gold Lifesaving Medal at a ceremony in the Oval Office. Reagan quoted from a Time magazine article after the Jan. 13, 1982, crash, saying: "If the man in the water gave a lifeline to the people gasping for survival, he was likewise giving a lifeline to those who observed him."

The award came after Williams' mother, Virginia Williams of Mattoon, Ill., wrote to the president asking if something could be done to resolve the question of whether her son was, as some news accounts had suggested, the unknown passenger who had been seen giving a helicopter rescue line to others. "I ask no honors. But I do ask that he be acknowledged as a hero, not the unknown hero," she said.

Alas, I graduated one year too early, as in 1993 President Reagan spoke to the graduating class about Williams, in a speech that chokes me up just reading it:

For months thereafter, we knew him only as the "unknown hero." And then an exhaustive Coast Guard investigation conclusively established his identity. Many of you here today know his name as well as I do, for his portrait now hangs with honor—as it indeed should—on this very campus; the campus where he once walked, as you have, through the Summerall Gate and along the Avenue of Remembrance. He was a young first classman with a crisp uniform and a confident stride on a bright spring morning, full of hopes and plans for the future. He never dreamed that his life's supreme challenge would come in its final moments, some 25 years later, adrift in the bone-chilling waters of an ice-strewn river and surrounded by others who desperately needed help.

But when the challenge came, he was ready. His name was Arland D. Williams, Jr., The Citadel Class of 1957. He brought honor to his alma mater, and honor to his nation. I was never more proud as president than on that day in June 1983 when his parents and his children joined me in the Oval Office—for then I was able, on behalf of the nation, to pay posthumous honor to him. Greater love, as the Bible tells us, hath no man than to lay down his life for a friend.

I have spoken of Arland Williams in part to honor him anew in your presence, here at this special institution that helped mold his character. It is the same institution that has now put its final imprint on you, the graduating seniors of its 150th year. But I have also retold his story because I believe it has something important to teach to you as graduates about the challenges that life inevitably seems to present — and about what it is that prepares us to meet them.

Sometimes, you see, life gives us what we think is fair warning of the choices that will shape our future. On such occasions, we are able to look far along the path, up ahead to that distant point in the woods where the poet's "two roads" diverge. And then, if we are wise, we will take time to think and reflect before choosing which road to take before the junction is reached.

But such occasions, in fact, are rather rare—far rarer, I suspect, than the confident eyes of one's early twenties can quite perceive. Far more often than we can comfortably admit, the most crucial of life's moments come like the scriptural "thief in the night." Suddenly and without notice, the crisis is up on us and the moment of choice is at hand—a moment fraught with import for ourselves, and for all who are depending on the choice we make. We find ourselves, if you will, plunged without warning into the icy water, where the currents of moral consequence run swift and deep, and where our fellow man - and yes, I believe our Maker—are waiting to see whether we will pass the rope.

These are moments when instinct and character take command, as they took command for Arland Williams on the day our Lord would call him home. For there is no time, at such moments, for anything but fortitude and integrity. Debate and reflection and a leisurely weighing of the alternatives are luxuries we do not have. The only question is what kind of responsibility will come to the fore.

 And now we come to the heart of the matter, to the core lesson taught by the heroism of Arland Williams on January 13, 1982. For you see, the character that takes command in moments of crucial choices has already been determined.

Here's a great speech from former Rep Trey Gowdy at Liberty University talking about Wiliams:

Posted in N/A | 0 comments
« Previous story
Next story »


* To comment without a Facebook account, please scroll to the bottom.

Add new comment

Plain text

  • No HTML tags allowed.
  • Web page addresses and e-mail addresses turn into links automatically.
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.
This question is for testing whether or not you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.
Have a tip for us? A link that should appear here? Contact us.
News from the World of Military and Veterans Issues. Iraq and A-Stan in parenthesis reflects that the author is currently deployed to that theater.