Heroes honored 35 years after deadly Air Florida Flight 90 plane crash

It’s a seminal moment in Washington D.C. history: the crash and subsequent rescue of passengers aboard doomed Air Florida Flight 90.

“I’d never seen anything like it,” Don Usher said.

Usher was the U.S. Park Police pilot who swooped in under horrendous conditions to pluck a number of surviving passengers to safety.

“So it was a sense of urgency but we had our own safety to deal with, debris, jet fuel, every possible bad thing that you could think of," Usher said.

This year marks the 35th anniversary of the crash of Air Florida Flight 90 in which 78 perished and five survived.

The National Law Enforcement Museum hosted a panel discussion Tuesday night, inviting people directly involved with the harrowing experience including Usher, photojournalist Chester Panzer and retired D.C. Homicide Detective Eric Witzig.

According to investigators, Air Florida Flight 90 had no business taking off from Reagan National Airport that bitter cold day. There was too much ice on the wings, the aircraft had a hard time taking off and only climbed to about 350 feet. About 30 seconds after takeoff, the plane slammed into the 14th Street Bridge and plunged into the icy Potomac.

“It is a miracle that five persons survived? Yes," Witzig said.

Witzig says just to get to the crash site, he and his partner had to drive down The National Mall to avoid gridlock traffic. When they finally arrived, the scene was overwhelming.

“It was too much. It was a horrific scene with the number of people who lost their lives in this airliner crash,” Witzig said.

Witzig says looking back he remains amazed that anyone survived even the impact, let alone the frigid waters of the Potomac.

Usher is just grateful to have played a part in saving lives in such arduous weather conditions.

“It could have been so much worse but I’m glad that we were there and were able to save some," Usher said.

One legacy of this crash is that it had a positive impact on aviation safety.

Officials determined that one reason why the plane went down was poor communication between the pilot and co-pilot. Improvements on cockpit communication were quickly instituted.

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