There is a bridge in Washington DC that is named after an unlikely hero, a man who quite literally gave his life to save others.
Thirty-eight years ago, on January 13, 1982, Air Florida Flight 90 Boeing 737-200 crashed onto the 14th Street Bridge and into an icy Potomac River, killing all 73 passengers and crew. Four passengers and one flight attendant were the only survivors.
At least four of those people owed their lives to the “sixth passenger” as he became known.
After the plane crashed and began to sink into the ice-strewn river, six people could be seen clinging to the plane’s tail fin. A US Park Police helicopter arrived on the scene and immediately began trying to rescue the survivors. The helicopter rescued one person and then returned to the tail.
Arland D. Williams Jr. caught the rescue line and instead of wrapping it around himself, he passed it to flight attendant Kelly Duncan. When the helicopter returned to the wreckage a third time, it dropped two lines because the crew feared that the remaining survivors would succumb to hypothermia very soon. Williams caught one of the lines and passed it on to a severely injured Joe Stiley, who also grabbed Priscilla Tirado. Patricia Felch took the other line and was towed to safety along with the others.
When the helicopter returned, Williams and the tail section of the plane were gone. After the bodies from the crash were recovered, the coroner determined that Williams was the only passenger to die by drowning therefore he had been the “sixth passenger,” the one who gave his life for others.
Ninety-one years ago today a man was born who would give his life to rescue his people from the dark depths of racial segregation and discrimination. Fifty-two years after his death, the life and legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. is honored and acknowledged through his monument on the National Mall.
I will probably never have a bridge named after me, but I want to be a bridge between people. I may never have to pass a rescue line to another, but I want to daily live my life in service to others who may need a helping hand.
I will probably never have a monument highlighting my deeds, but I can make my life a monument that honors an ordinary hero like Williams and the extraordinary life of Dr. King.
Perhaps I can be the one who keeps someone from slipping beneath the surface into the cold depths of despair.
Originally posted January 15, 2012, dates updated to reflect present.