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Horrific crash that forever changed air transit marks 30th anniv.

Friday - 1/13/2012, 11:06am  ET

14thStBridge.jpg
Ultimately, pilot error and improper de-icing of the jet's wings were pegged as the causes of the Air Florida Flight 90 crash into the 14th Street Bridge. (Photo courtesy nsf.gov)

Dave Statter

The former WTOP and Channel 9 reporter discusses the horrors of covering the crash.

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Nathan Hager, wtop.com

WASHINGTON - For longtime Washingtonians, it may be hard to believe that a generation has passed since the disaster that shocked the nation and led to much-needed changes to safety in the air.

On Jan. 13, 1982, Air Florida Flight 90 crashed into the 14th Street Bridge and plunged into the icy Potomac River shortly after takeoff from National Airport.

Seventy-four of the 79 passengers and crew aboard the Boeing 737 perished in the crash, along with four more people on the ground.

"I remember that day so vividly," says WTOP Capitol Hill correspondent Dave McConnell, who had been covering a congressional event at the National Press Club when he was told to head to the disaster.

"I was absolutely shocked to see the bodies that had been taken from the icy waters... I think that was the most disturbing scene that I had ever witnessed," McConnell says.

The crash revived longstanding concerns about National Airport's close proximity to the nation's capital, and its potentially risky flight paths over the Potomac River.

A massive snowstorm had shut down the airport for hours before Flight 90 was given a brief window to takeoff.

Ultimately, pilot error and improper de-icing of the jet's wings were pegged as the causes of the disaster.

That finding, and the attention that the crash received for having occurred in the nation's capital, led to changes in safety for commercial flight.

"The whole issue of safety was revisited, and a lot of good came out of a horrible, horrible day," McConnell says.

Yet despite that renewed focus on safety, McConnell says he still gets an apprehensive feeling when he reflects upon the events of 30 years ago.

"What happened to those people, what happened out on the banks of the Potomac, that happened here in Washington, it's something that I don't think I'll ever forget," McConnell says.

The Air Florida crash overshadowed another deadly accident on the same day.

Three people died after an Orange Line train derailed between the Federal Triangle and Smithsonian stations.

It was the worst accident in Metro history, until the Red Line crash near the Takoma station that left nine dead in June 2009.

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(Copyright 2012 by WTOP. All Rights Reserved.)