Sunday, January 29, 2012

Bus Ahoy!

Italian Cruise ship captain Francesco Schettino began his new job as a bus driver last Friday.

Friday, January 13, 2012

"We're Going Down"

I still remember what I was doing 30 years ago today.

I was working at a record (Round black things that played music when you stuck a needle on them. Seriously.) store in Manassas Mall- Harmony Hut, if you're being nosy--and we had received word to close early because of a snowstorm. On the way home I was listening to the radio when the announcer interrupted with a news bulletin that a plane had just crashed into the Potomac River.

When I got to the house I immediately turned on the TV and the first thing I saw was a U.S. Park Police helicopter trying to rescue people from the river. At one point the pilot, officer Don Usher, actually dipped the skids into the water as another guy leaned out the open door to grab a survivor. And while I may not know squat about flying a helicopter, I know enough to realize that was one hell of a daring move.

The plane that had gone down was Air Florida flight 90. It had just taken off from National Airport, gotten maybe 50 feet into the air, and then stalled. On its way down, the Boeing 727 clipped the 14th Street Bridge and killed four motorists who were stuck in rush hour traffic. The plane then smashed through the ice of the frozen river below.

Investigators quickly concluded that the plane had stalled because of ice on its wings. Although it had been de-iced while still at the gate, the plane got stuck as it was pulling away. That ended up costing it almost an hour delay, enough time for ice to begin reforming on its exterior.

As it turns out, however, investigators also found that the causes of this tragedy went well beyond mere frozen slush. It got to the heart of how people interact with superiors. For example, on the black box recording the copilot could be heard voicing concerns about some anomalous readings from one of the engines, readings probably caused by the buildup of ice over various sensors. The pilot, however, ignored the warnings. And the copilot, rather than continuing to press the issue, declined to further challenge his Captain's authority.

Finally, at 4:01 PM, came the final exchange between the Captain and his First Officer (Graphic of time line, cockpit recordings):
First Officer: Larry, we're going down, Larry.
Captain: I know it.
The lessons learned from the accident investigation carried over into other modes of transportation, as well as even the medical profession. The bottom line was don't be afraid to challenge your superiors if you see a potential problem. (More photos).

Amazingly, four passengers and a flight attendant from the plane ended up surviving thanks to the heroic efforts of several passersby.

Roger Olian was a sheet metal foreman at Saint Elizabeth's hospital. He was on his way home when the plane crashed near him. Before rescue workers had a chance to begin arriving, he and several other people fashioned a long "rope" out of jumper cables, panty hose, and scarves. He tied one end around his waist and then crawled out onto the ice. He got to within a few yards of the wreckage when the helicopter arrived and was pulled back to shore.

Then there was a lowly government worker named Lenny Skutnik. He watched one woman repeatedly trying to grab the rescue line from the chopper, but the 29 degree water had weakened her to the point where she could no longer hold on to the rope. So what did this idiot go and do? He jumped into the freezing water without a lifeline, swam 30 feet through chunks of broken ice, grabbed the woman, and dragged her back to shore.

People call athletes heroes for pulling in multi-million dollar paychecks. But when is the last time Peyton Manning jumped into 29 degree water to save someone's life? Has Tim Tebow ever risked his neck piloting a rescue helicopter during a blinding snowstorm?

Two weeks later, Skutnik got to sit next to Nancy Reagan as her husband delivered the State of the Union Address. During the speech, President Reagan congratulated Skutnik by name for his actions. And while many other people have since been invited to the annual presidential addresses and singled out for recognition, Skutnik was the first. He still lives in the same Washington area townhouse as 30 years ago, but has since retired from the Congressional Budget Office.

Finally and most sadly, there was Arland Williams. He was a passenger on the plane and survived the crash itself. But he kept passing the helicopter's life line to other surviving passengers. And what became of Williams?

He had been so busy saving others that he drowned before he could save himself.

WUSA news report

Documentary, part 1 (Includes interviews with Skutnik, Olian,
a crash survivor, and the copter pilots)

Documentary, part 2

Documentary, part 3

Documentary, part 4