Probably the most famous event to take place along the Mount Vernon Trail was the crash of Air Florida Flight 90 into the Potomac River 30 years ago today. I pass the crash site every day amazed that anyone was pulled alive from the wreckage. Only 5 people survived and one person, Arland D. Williams, gave away a lifeline several times before he drowned. One of the three 14th Street Bridge spans is named after him.
I saw a small memorial between the trail and the river on my way home this evening. A colorful wreath was propped up where the plane hit the ice-covered river. In front of the wreath was a small, framed cartoonist rendering of the events of the day.
I have a fascination with plane crashes because I saw a plane come down when I was in high school. It happened almost 40 years ago. My friend Owen and I were out for a walk, two bored teenagers with nothing else to do on an overcast, gloomy night. Just after I said, “Nothing ever happens around here,” something happened.
We lived in the flight path about five miles south east of Albany Airport and were accustomed to seeing planes on their final approach. That dark night a plane came in overhead. It sounded strange and the configuration of its lights made no sense to us. We couldn’t tell what size of plane it was, but we sensed it was in serious trouble. We ran in the direction of the plane and, after sprinting a short ways, heard a dull “THUD” in the distance. No explosion. Owen said, “That plane crashed.” I said, “No way. We would have heard an explosion.” We ran to the nearest pay phone which happened to be directly across the street from a hospital. We called a friend who lived further along the flight path. He hadn’t heard a thing.
As he told us this, we heard sirens from all directions. Every emergency vehicle in town was racing to the crash. So did we. We hitched a ride (the only time in my life I ever hitched a ride) in a white Mustang. We went about a half mile and jumped out at a red light. I remember that the car door wouldn’t close. “Sorry, man!” We ran in the direction of the flight path and overran the crash site by a couple of blocks. By the time we arrived there were several hundred people in a semicircle facing a passenger plane, lodged in a house. It , looked as if the pilot had tried to drive it into the garage. The telephone lines and a big deciduous tree directly across the street were both somehow completely intact.
The left wing of the plane clipped the brick house to the left causing the corner of the house to buckle. The garage to the right was untouched and was being used as a staging area for the bodies of the victims. We all watched in silence. A whisper here and there. Light snow was falling on the proceedings.
After it was all over, something was bugging me. There was no music. There’s supposed to be Max Steiner music when something dramatic happens. Like in King Kong or Casablanca. Real life has no sound track. Just the music in our heads. Along side the creepy memories of a gloomy night in March 1972.