Arland D. Williams Jr.

Arland Dean Williams Jr. (September 23, 1935 – January 13, 1982) was a passenger aboard Air Florida Flight 90, which crashed on take-off in Washington, D.C., on January 13, 1982, killing 74 people. One of six people to initially survive the crash, he helped the other five escape the sinking plane before he himself drowned.[1]

Arland D. Williams Jr.
Williams in 1957
Born(1935-09-23)September 23, 1935
DiedJanuary 13, 1982(1982-01-13) (aged 46)
Cause of deathDrowning among the wreckage of Air Florida Flight 90
Resting placeDodge Grove Cemetery
Mattoon, Illinois, U.S.
Monuments14th Street Bridge
Alma materThe Citadel, 1957
OccupationBank examiner
EmployerFederal Reserve System
Known forPassenger of Air Florida Flight 90
AwardsU.S. Coast Guard's
Gold Lifesaving Medal[1]

The 14th Street Bridge over the Potomac River at the crash site was renamed in his honor.


Born and raised in Mattoon, Illinois, Williams graduated from Mattoon High School in 1953, where he acquired the nickname "Chub".[2] He attended The Citadel in South Carolina.[2] According to his high school girlfriend, Williams had been nervous about The Citadel's swimming requirement, as he had always had a fear of water.[2]

Williams was the son of A.D. Williams and Virginia Church Williams. He was a divorced father of two - Arland D. Williams III (1966-2003) and Leslie A. Williams, and was engaged to be remarried when he died.[3][4][5][6]

After graduation he served two years in the military in a stateside post and then went into banking, eventually becoming a bank examiner for the Federal Reserve System in Atlanta.[2]

Air Florida Flight 90Edit

On January 13, 1982, during an extraordinary period of freezing weather, Air Florida Flight 90 took off from nearby Washington National Airport, failed to gain altitude, and crashed into the 14th Street Bridge, where it hit six cars and a truck on the bridge, killing four motorists.

After the crash on the bridge, the plane then continued forward and plunged into the freezing Potomac River. Soon only the tail section which had broken off remained afloat. Only 6 of the airliner's 79 occupants (74 passengers and 5 crew members) survived the initial crash and were able to escape the sinking plane in the middle of the ice-choked river.

After the crashEdit

News cameramen watched from the bridge, recording the unfolding disaster. There appeared to be no way to reach the survivors in the water. Bystanders helped as fellow passerby Roger Olian, with a makeshift rope, began an attempt to rescue them. At about 4:20 p.m., Eagle 1, a U.S. Park Police helicopter based at Anacostia Park in Washington and flown by pilot Donald W. Usher and carrying paramedic Melvin E. "Gene" Windsor, arrived and assisted with the rescue operation. At one point in the operation the helicopter's skids dipped beneath the surface of the icy water.

According to the other five survivors, Williams continued to help the others reach the rescue ropes being dropped by the hovering helicopter, repeatedly passing the line to others instead of using it himself. While the other five were being taken to shore by the helicopter, the tail section of the wrecked Boeing 737 shifted and sank farther into the water, dragging Williams under the water with it.

The next day, The Washington Post described his actions:

He was about 50 years old, one of half a dozen survivors clinging to twisted wreckage bobbing in the icy Potomac when the first helicopter arrived. To the copter's two-man Park Police crew he seemed the most alert. Life vests were dropped, then a flotation ball. The man passed them to the others. On two occasions, the crew recalled last night, he handed away a life line from the hovering machine that could have dragged him to safety. The helicopter crew – who rescued five people, the only persons who survived from the jetliner – lifted a woman to the riverbank, then dragged three more persons across the ice to safety. Then the life line saved a woman who was trying to swim away from the sinking wreckage, and the helicopter pilot, Donald W. Usher, returned to the scene, but the man was gone.

— "A Hero – Passenger Aids Others, Then Dies", The Washington Post, January 14, 1982.

An essay in Time magazine dated January 25, 1982, was written before the identity of Williams was known. Roger Rosenblatt, the essay's author, wrote:

So the man in the water had his own natural powers. He could not make ice storms, or freeze the water until it froze the blood. But he could hand life over to a stranger, and that is a power of nature too. The man in the water pitted himself against an implacable, impersonal enemy; he fought it with charity; and he held it to a standoff. He was the best we can do.

— Rosenblatt, R., "The Man in the Water", Time, January 25, 1982.[7]


The four other members of the Air Florida rescue who also risked their lives but survived were honored shortly after the disaster.

It took over a year to investigate and establish without any doubt Williams's identity and actions. On June 6, 1983, Williams was posthumously awarded the United States Coast Guard's Gold Lifesaving Medal in a White House Oval Office presentation to his family by President Ronald Reagan and Secretary of Transportation Elizabeth H. Dole. Mrs. Virginia Williams accepted the medal on her son's behalf.[1] Other participants in the ceremony included the recipient's father, Arland; his children, Arland III and Leslie Ann; and his sister, Jean Fullmer. Also present were Commander Donald C. Addison; Vice Admiral Benedict L. Stabile, vice commandant of the U.S. Coast Guard; Senator Charles H. Percy and Representative Daniel B. Crane of Illinois.

The docudrama Flight 90: Disaster on the Potomac was aired on NBC television on April 1, 1984. It displayed the heroism of Williams, portrayed by Donnelly Rhodes.

The repaired 14th Street Bridge over the Potomac River at the crash site, which had been officially named the "Rochambeau Bridge", was renamed the "Arland D. Williams Jr. Memorial Bridge" in his honor by the city government of the District of Columbia in March 1985.[8][9] Senator Ernest Hollings of South Carolina, a fellow alumnus of the Citadel, initiated the action in late 1983.[10]

In 1993, Reagan retold the story of Williams and paid tribute to him during a commencement address at the Citadel on May 15.[11] In 2000, the Citadel — and Williams's alma mater (class of 1957) — created the Arland D. Williams Society to recognize graduates who distinguished themselves through community service. The Citadel also established the Arland D. Williams Endowed Professorship of Heroism in his honor.

In August 2003, the new Arland D. Williams Jr. Elementary School in his hometown of Mattoon was dedicated.[12]

Pop singer Sara Hickman's song "Last Man in the Water"[13] is a tribute to Williams.

See alsoEdit


  1. ^ a b c "Potomac mystery hero identified". Toledo Blade. Toloedo, Ohio. Associated Press. June 7, 1983. p. 1.
  2. ^ a b c d Mcdougall, Christopher. "The hidden cost of heroism". NBC News. NBC. Retrieved December 9, 2012.
  3. ^ Martin, Carolyn (January 19, 1982). "Williams recalled as sensitive man". Boca Raton News. Boca Raton, Florida. p. 1A.
  4. ^ Keim, Cathy (January 19, 1982). "Son of probable hero of crash 'very proud' of father's action". Schenectady Gazette. New York. UPI. p. 1.
  5. ^ "Obituary for Arland D. Williams (Aged 46)". Herald and Review. 1982-01-20. p. 8. Retrieved 2021-12-29.
  6. ^ "Obituary for Arland D. Williams". Journal Gazette. 1982-01-14. p. 1. Retrieved 2021-12-29.
  7. ^ Roger Rosenblatt (January 25, 1982). "The Man in the Water". Time. Retrieved March 5, 2021.
  8. ^ "Bridge being renamed to honor hero". Spartanburg Herald-Journal. South Carolina. Associated Press. March 14, 1985. p. C14.
  9. ^ Coppola, Michele (March 14, 1985). "D.C. span in crash named for man who helped others". Schenectady Gazette. New York. Associated Press. p. 12.
  10. ^ "Hollings wants bridge named after dead hero". Spartanburg Herald-Journal. South Carolina. Associated Press. December 23, 1983. p. C4.
  11. ^ Reagan, Ronald (May 15, 1993). "Keepers of the peace". Archived from the original on October 31, 2007.
  12. ^ Stroud, Rob (August 16, 2003). "Mattoon school honors hero: Arland D. Williams sacrificed himself to save others after 1982 plane crash". Herald & Review. Decatur, Illinois.
  13. ^ "Last Man In the Water/Story and Lyrics". January 13, 2007. Retrieved January 21, 2017.

External linksEdit