40 years ago on WTOP: Air Florida crash, fatal Metro derailment, snowstorm

Today marks 40 years since Jan. 13, 1982 — the snowy day Air Florida Flight 90 crashed into the 14th Street Bridge, and Metrorail experienced its first fatal derailment.

A U.S. Park Police helicopter pulls two people from the wreckage of the remains of the Air Florida jetliner after it fell into the Potomac River when it hit a bridge while taking-off from National Airport in Washington, Wednesday, Jan. 13, 1982. (AP Photo/Charles Pereira, Pool)
The remains of an auto that was hit by an Air Florida jetliner is shown on the 14th Street Bridge in Washington, Wednesday, Jan. 13, 1982. The jet was taking off from National Airport but hit some autos then crashed into the Potomac River. (AP Photo/Ira Schwarz)

The Air Florida crash killed 78 people, including four who were in their cars on the inbound 14th Street Bridge. Seventy of 74 passengers and four of five crew members died. The flight had taken off from what was then know simply as National Airport.

An unidentified passenger from an Air Florida jetliner that crashed into the Potomac River holds on to a safety ring during a rescue attempt in Washington, Jan. 13, 1982. ABC-TV News has identified her as Priscilla Tirado, hometown unknown. (AP Photo)

And, within a half-hour of the plane plunging into the frozen Potomac River, a Metro Orange Line train derailed in a tunnel, between the Federal Triangle and Smithsonian stations. The derailment killed three people and inured 25.

Forty years later, one of the people involved in WTOP’s coverage that day reflects on how the technology of news gathering has changed.

Dave Statter wasn’t a WTOP reporter at the time.

“I had an appointment set up for Jan. 15, that Friday, to be a backup traffic radio reporter at WTOP Radio,” he said this week.

Shortly after 4 p.m., while watching the snowstorm out of his Pentagon City apartment, Statter heard scanner traffic between emergency agencies that a plane had crashed into cars and trucks on the bridge, and ended up in the Potomac.

Wreckage and broken ice floats in the Potomac River in Washington, on January 13, 1982, shortly after an Air Florida jetliner hit the 14th Street bridge and crashed into the river. Rescue workers in rafts are searching for survivors. (AP Photo/Scott Stewart)

Statter made his way through the Pentagon City streets, trying to confirm the information, and provide it to WTOP.

“There were no cellphones in those days, I had to find a way to communicate,” recalled Statter.

He stopped at the Twin Bridges Marriott, located near the 14th Street Bridge.

Rescue workers drop a line of the 14th Street Bridge following the crash of an Air Florida jetliner in Washington on Wednesday, Jan. 14, 1982. Hitting the bridge and several cars and trucks, the plane landed in the Potomac River. (AP Photo)

“I talked my way into a fifth-floor hotel room, where people were watching the crash scene [out the window] and they let me use the telephone,” said Statter. “So, I called WTOP with their first reports, using somebody’s hotel phone, a landline phone.”

While WTOP reporters at the time had two-way radios, “I wasn’t on staff yet, so I didn’t have one. That hotel phone was my lifeline to the WTOP newsroom.”

In one instance, Statter’s line was disconnected, but his hosts in the hotel room allowed him to dial the newsroom again.

“When I called back in, someone said ‘Are you calling about the Metro crash?’ and I said, “What Metro crash?'” said Statter, reflecting the limited focus a reporter often experiences, when immersed on-scene, covering a story.

Statter went on to a long broadcast news career, at WTOP and WUSA-TV. His Statter911 blog contains archive materials from the busy day in his career.

Over the decades, technology has continued to improve, providing reporters with digital ways of recording and transmitting reports on smartphones.

“Here in 2022, if that crash were to have occurred today, the first word to the WTOP newsroom or Traffic Center would certainly come from someone on that bridge, and most likely they’d be sending photos or video,” Statter said.

However, given the prevalence of people documenting their lives and experiences, at times becoming viral videos, Statter said that leaves him with a question: “Would people be so focused on getting those images, and so detached, that we wouldn’t have a Lenny Skutnik or Roger Olian, jumping in the river, trying to save those passengers?”

Skutnik, a retired U.S. government employment, dove into the icy water, saving the life of Priscilla Tirado. Roger Olian, a sheet-metal foreman, was the first to jump into the water to try to reach survivors.

The National Transportation Safety Board found the failure to properly de-ice the plane, and the pilots’ inexperience in winter weather operations contributed to the crash.

The crash led to reforms in pilot-training regulations.

Archival photos of the crash of Air Florida Flight 90

This photo diagram shows the location of National Airport, from which an Air Florida Boeing 737 jetliner crashed while taking off in Washington, Wednesday, Jan. 13, 1982. The aircraft crashed into a bridge crowded with rush hour commuters, then plunged into the icy waters of the Potomac River nearby. (AP Photo)
A truck hangs over the 14th Street Bridge in Washington, Jan. 14, 1982 after being hit by an Air Florida jetliner which then went into the Potomac River. (AP Photo)
A section of a wing of the Air Florida jetliner which crashed into Washington’s Potomac River on Wednesday is raised from the water, Friday, Jan. 15, 1982. Salvage workers labored through the day Friday, trying to find victims of the crash, portions of the plane and the cockpit recorders which were aboard. (AP Photo)
A member of the search team carries a brief case through the snow from the Potomac River, the site of the Air Florida jetliner, in Washington, Jan. 15, 1982. A search team was recovering articles from the river. (AP Photo/Ira Schwarz)
Members of the search team pull in pieces of debris from the fallen Air Florid jetliner on the Potomac River in Washington, Jan. 15, 1982. Two barges are used to hold the debris. The 14th Street Bridge is in the background. (AP Photo)
Members of the search team probe off a barge in the Potomac River in Washington, Jan. 15, 1982 seeking pieces of the Air Florida jetliner that crashed into the river two days ago. (AP Photo)
A scuba diver gets ready to dive off a barge in the Potomac River in Washington, Jan. 15, 1982, for pertinent articles from the Air Florida jetliner that crashed into the river two days ago. (AP Photo/Ira Schwarz)
A member of the diving team, aiding in the salvage effort of an Air Florida jetliner which crashed in the Potomac River, takes a break during the salvage operations in Washington, Jan. 15, 1982. Several barges manned by Coast Guard and Army Corps of Engineers members along with firemen are aiding in the operation which has been hampered by snowstorms and freezing temperatures. (AP Photo/Ira Schwarz)
Members of the salvage team aid in the recovery effort of an Air Florida jetliner which crashed in the Potomac River, Jan. 16, 1982. The operation has been hampered by snowstorms, ice and low temperatures. At lower left is a piece of the 737 jetliner. (AP Photo/Ira Schwarz)
A salvage worker holds a piece of debris recovered from the wreckage of an Air Florida jetliner in Washington, Jan. 16, 1982, as salvage work continued. Workers continued efforts to find bodies of some of the 78 people who died in the accident. (AP Photo)
Rescue equipment line up on the bank of the Potomac River, site of the Air Florida plane crash on Jan. 13, after overnight temperatures hit record lows slowing recovery efforts, in Washington, Sunday, Jan. 17, 1982. (AP Photo/John Duricka)
Salvage personnel start to examine the tail section of the Air Florida jetliner after it was removed from the Potomac River in Washington on Monday, Jan. 18, 1982. The flight recorders were reported to be in this section of aircraft but were not found after the removal from the water. (AP Photo/Jeff Taylor)
The tail of the Air Florida jet that crashed into the Potomac River in Washington, D.C., is hoisted from the water by a crane, Jan. 18, 1982, during salvage efforts. The 14th Street Bridge that the plane hit while taking off from National Airport is pictured in background. (AP Photo)
Kelly Duncan, 23, a flight attendant on the Air Florida jet that crashed into the Potomac River on Wednesday afternoon, recuperates from her injuries in a hospital in Washington on Sunday, Jan. 18, 1982. Kelly was pulled from the chilly waters of the river soon after the accident by a National Park Service helicopter. (AP Photo/John Durica)
The tail section of the Boeing 727 that crashed into the Potomac River on Jan. 13 is lifted from the river in Washington on Jan. 18, 1982. (AP Photo/Barry Thumma)
The tail section of the Air Florida jetliner that crashed in the Potomac River in Washington on Wednesday is hoisted by a crane onto a floating barge after being removed, Monday, Jan. 19, 1982 from the water. A span of the 14th Street bridge which the plane did not hit is shown in background. (AP Photo)
Salvage personnel remove another section of the Air Florida jetliner from the Potomac River in Washington, Tuesday, Jan. 19, 1982 as they continue to hunt for the flight recorders which have not been recovered. The plane crashed last Wednesday on take-off from National Airport. (AP Photo/Ira Schwarz)
A diver jumps from a barge into the icy Potomac River in Washington, Wednesday, Jan. 20, 1982 and a few minutes later located two flight recorders that were aboard the ill-fated Air Florida flight 90 that crashed on takeoff one week ago. The man in the left background of the photo holds an electronic sounding device used to locate the recorders. Seventy-eight people died in the crash. (AP Photo/Charles Tasnadi)
Divers remove the flight recorders, that were aboard the ill-fated Air Florida jetliner that crashed in the Potomac River in Washington on last Wednesday from the water in Washington, Wednesday, Jan. 20, 1982. The two critical on-board recorders may provide clues to last week’s crash. The recorder is the box with the stripe being held by the man in top of photo. (AP Photo/Charles Tasnadi)
Divers remove from the Potomac River in Washington, Wednesday, Jan. 20, 1982, one of the critical on-board flight recorders that was aboard the Air Florida jetliner that crashed last Wednesday on take-off from National Airport. Clues to the cause of the crash are expected to be provided from data that will be taken from the box. Stenciled on the box are ‘Flight Recorder Do Not Open’ as well as painted stripes. (AP Photo/Charles Tasnadi)
Carol Roberts, right, Chief of Laboratory Services, National Transportation Safety Board, shows Francis McAdams who is a NTSB board member and the head of the investigation on Air Florida jetliner crash, the flight recorder and the case that the voice recorder was in, during a news conference at NTSB headquarters in Washington, Wednesday, Jan. 20, 1982. The plane crashed one week ago on Wednesday in the Potomac River. The recorders were recovered from the water by divers early Wednesday morning. (AP Photo/Ira Schwarz)
Federal investigators examine the tail section of the Air Florida jetliner that crashed in the Potomac River on Monday, January 13 in a hangar at National Airport in Arlington, Virginia, Jan. 25, 1982 to try an determine the cause of the accident. Information from the flight recorder showed that the craft failed to gain adequate acceleration as it took off and never rose more than 337 feet. (AP Photo/Barry Thumma)

Listen to WTOP’s coverage from Jan. 13, 1982:

WTOP’s Colleen Kelleher contributed to this story.

Neal Augenstein

Neal Augenstein has been a reporter at WTOP since 1997. Through the years, Neal has covered many of the crimes and trials that have gripped the region. Neal's been pleased to receive awards over the years for hard news, feature reporting, use of sound and sports.

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