On a very cold and snowy day in January 1982, Air Florida flight 90 took off from Washington National Airport (now called Reagan National Airport). The tarmac crew had de-iced the plane, but delays in takeoff resulted in ice build-up on the wings.
As the Boeing 737 left the runway on takeoff, ice on the wings restricted it from gaining altitude. Instead of banking south toward sunny Florida, it instead plunged toward the Potomac River, glancing off of the 14th Street Bridge before crashing through the ice and sinking to the bottom.
Miraculously, six people survived. Stunned commuters helplessly watched the survivors surface in the middle of the river. Within minutes a rescue helicopter was over the scene. The crew lowered a harness to a survivor — a man named Arland D. Williams. Believing he was the least injured person, he helped secure the harness on another survivor.
The helicopter dropped its passenger on the snowy shore and returned. A second time Williams passed up the opportunity to be saved and instead helped another injured passenger. This was repeated three more times. But when the helicopter returned for Williams, the last survivor in the water, he was gone.
Arland Williams drowned that day after saving five people. Today, the 14th Street Bridge has been renamed the Arland D. Williams, Jr. Memorial Bridge.
Who can read a story of such courage and selflessness and not be moved? Bravery, like that demonstrated by Arland Williams, changes lives forever.
One needn’t look far to find other heroes who have changed the world. Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Jr., and even our founding fathers who risked death for treason are just a few of those heroes.
But sometimes great courage only changes one person.
My daughter was an avid reader who once had a goal to read every book in the library and she never passed on a challenge. In the third grade, when she learned of a recitation contest, she didn’t even consider the easy 10-line poems that many of her classmates selected.
“I want to do ‘The Raven,’” she told me. I cringed. I knew this Edgar Allan Poe poem quite well. It is over 1,100 words long — half again as long as this newspaper column.
I suggested she pick something more manageable, but she declined, certain that this was the challenge for her. So, I listened to her for days as she memorized and polished it off.
Then came the PTO night when children would perform their recitations. My child was one of the first. She stood on the stage, faced the audience and started out strong. Then, just two lines in, she froze.
She looked helplessly to the wings for a cue from a teacher, but she was on her own. After what seemed like an eternity, she walked off the stage without uttering another syllable of the poem.
Like any daddy wanting to protect his child, I was petrified, worrying that she would feel humiliated. But, as she came to her place in the audience with her mother and me, she said, “Can we go home and get the book so I can remember what I missed and I’ll go back up and do it again?”
I was stunned and asked if she was sure. She had no doubt, so I scrambled to the parking lot, drove the short distance home, and retrieved the book. We were back in minutes.
Looking over the poem, her face lit up when she realized what she had forgotten. She said she was ready to try again.
And with courage I know I couldn’t have summoned, my little girl walked out on stage for the second time that evening. The audience welcomed her back with polite and encouraging applause. Then as the room fell silent, she began once again.
“While I nodded, nearly napping, suddenly there came a tapping, as of someone gently rapping, rapping at my chamber door…”
I held my breath. If she lost her place again, I didn’t know what it might do to her. But her sweet voice never faltered, and for the more than five minutes, she recited all of “The Raven” without a single error.
I know that she may never have a bridge named after her and no grandchildren will exist someday because she saved their grandparents from an icy river. But to me, her bravery was equally meaningful.
I have never forgotten what she did and when I’ve faced frightening situations over the years, that little curly haired third-grader comes to mind. She might not have changed others. Most have probably long ago forgotten that event. But that’s okay. She changed me.
[Gregory K. Moffatt, Ph.D., is a college professor, published author, licensed counselor, certified professional counselor supervisor, newspaper columnist and public speaker. His website is gregmoffatt.com.]