It was a snowy afternoon in 1982 when a plane taking off stalled in the air and began to rush towards the Potomac.
WASHINGTON. When Joe Styley woke up on the fateful morning of January 13, 1982, it was snowing.
He knew he had to fly to Florida that day for work. He had the unpleasant duty of announcing layoffs and was not thrilled about leaving town. It was his son’s 13th birthday.
Indifferent to the work ahead, he went to the airport, watching the weather forecast. He wasn’t sure they would even be able to send a plane that day.
While boarding the flight, he noticed a lot of people heading for a warmer climate. On board were the military, students and families. He spoke to a couple of students returning to school in Florida after winter break in Washington.
Little did he know that his momentary decision to sit in the smoking section of an airplane—at that time a smoking section was allowed on airplanes—with his assistant, Patricia Felch, would affect the rest of his life.
After several delays due to heavy snowfall, the plane was cleared to take off.
Styley was not a nervous pilot. He was a pilot himself and taught students how to fly in and out of what was then called the National Airport. Renamed Ronald Reagan National Airport in 1998, many pilots say it is difficult to get in and out of.
As the plane picked up speed for takeoff, he began to worry. They didn’t go fast enough.
“I knew we were in trouble as we walked down the runway,” Styley said. “I knew we weren’t even close to the right speed.”
Styley tucked his head between his knees in a safe position. His colleague next to him did the same.
The plane stalled in the air and rushed to the Potomac River.
Later NTSB reports would show the first officer yelling “We’re sinking!”
The captain replied: “I know it!”
The plane crashed into the 14th Street Bridge and then crashed into the water.
A total of 78 people, including three babies, died in the plane crash that day. Only five survived.
“I was on the verge of passing out,” Styley recalled. “I said a short prayer, ‘Please God take care of my son,’ and I didn’t expect to regain consciousness.”
It took the plane a few moments to sink to the dark bottom of the river, and Styley was woken up by icy water sloshing over him. He realized that he was alive, like his colleague, but his legs were stuck and he was still strapped in. He freed his legs from the shattered metal and then helped Felch.
Despite the darkness, they could see some light from the surface. They swam towards him, crawling over the two students they’d chatted with seconds earlier.
“Suddenly I was in a frozen river, surrounded by shreds of yellow insulation, which a few moments ago were part of the plane,” he recalled.
The two swam towards the floating wreckage, where the other survivors had gathered and held on with all their might.
“We were in the middle of nowhere in the middle of this icy area,” Styley recalled. “At some point, a male voice began to say the Lord’s Prayer, and we all joined in.”
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Minutes passed, people gathered to look at the bridge and along the embankment.
From the bridge, people tried to drop ropes to help the survivors. Another witness dived into the cold water from the river bank but was unable to reach the floating part of the aircraft.
“At some point I heard uuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuu helicopter approaching us and I knew someone was heading there,” Styley said.
A US Parks Police helicopter first picked up surviving flight attendant Kelly Duncan.
At some point, two ropes came down for Styley and Felch. Another woman, Priscilla Tirado, surfaced but struggled. Styley knew he had to help her.
Felch took one of the ropes and Styley wrapped the other half around his body. He grabbed the Tirado, and they began to tow them to the shore.
“They towed me and all these big chunks of ice and I kept getting them in the chest,” he recalled. His ribs were broken. “After four or five of these strikes, I lost control of Priscilla Tirado.”
Another man, Lenny Skutnik, jumped in to help her get ashore.
Styley was taken to the ambulance and went into shock. A few hours later, he woke up in a hospital room with dozens of injuries.
“Sitting here talking to you about this has made me think about things I haven’t thought about in years,” he mused one gray December morning at the request of WUSA9.
“There was nothing else I could do. I did everything I could,” he recalled emotionally. “And since then, I haven’t guessed anything. I was lucky that I was there to do something… [but] what kind of luck is this?
Walking along a trail in a park near the crash site, Styley said he learned a tough lesson in the years since the plane crashed into the river.
“In a year or two after that, I got enough knowledge about what it means to be a survivor in such a situation,” he said. “I’ve seen some of the best and worst people.”
His mother took care of him while he was recovering, carefully bandaging his bandages as he struggled to regain his strength.
But he also lost his friends and his job.
“I had all these people who were my friends who needed to borrow a dollar when they knew I had it or thought I had it,” he recalled with a hint of anger in his voice. “I lost what I thought was friendship as soon as I realized I valued more as a banker than as a friend to some people.”
But he is grateful that he survived.
“I’ve seen my children grow up and become parents and grandparents and I wouldn’t want to do that again,” he said.
At eighty, Joe Styley now lives in a remote part of Mexico called Puerto Escondido. He runs a small bed and breakfast and spends his days on the beach. But the chronic pain from his injuries remains with him, as does the terrible memory.
“One time I was swimming in a frozen river and I was quite cold,” he said dryly.
HOW THE ACCIDENT AFFECTED THE AVIATION INDUSTRY
The Air Florida disaster had a profound effect on the aviation industry.
The disaster marked the beginning of the end for Air Florida as a carrier. The company’s executives declared bankruptcy in 1984.
According to the NTSB report, several factors contributed to the 1982 Air Florida crash. The aircraft was not properly de-iced during a snowstorm that swept through Washington, D.C., and reportedly 6.4 inches of snow fell. As a result, the FAA changed the rules for de-icing.
It was found that the pilots had little experience flying in snow and were unable to communicate properly when an error was noticed on one of their instruments. The Air Florida crash is often cited as contributing to the formalization of a concept known as “crew resource management”, which means that if any subordinate flight points have problems, they must speak their concerns loudly and be heard by management. The NTSB report on the crash indicates that the first officer pointed out incorrect instrument readings, but the captain overruled it.
According to the NTSB and the FAA, Boeing changed the thermal de-icing system on the 737 models after the accident to allow less ice to build up on the wings.
The sixth victim, later identified as Arland D. Williams Jr. by the US Coast Guard, refused help to rescue the others from the icy river. He drowned before rescuers could return for him. The District of Columbia later renamed the 14th Street Bridge in his honor.
WATCH: “In the Blink of an Eye” is a series that tells the story of people whose lives suddenly change in one moment, and how it affected their future. Episode 3 follows two women who miraculously survived being completely hit by a car and how it brought them closer to their friends and their faith.
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