TAMPA, Fla. (WFLA) – Air Florida 90 took off from National Airport in Washington D.C. In a driving snowstorm on Jan. 13, 1982. The plane was on its way to Tampa International Airport but never made it.
An investigation later showed the plane had been de-iced, but sat on the runway too long and ice built up on the wings caused the aircraft to crash into the 14th Street Bridge, before falling into the frozen Potomac River.
Seventy-four passengers and 4 crew members were onboard the plane. Only 4 passengers and one crew member survived.
Larry Smyth was in the Navy, assigned to Naval District Washington at the time. When the call came out about a plane crash, Smyth and other volunteers quickly boarded a tug boat and headed up the frozen Potomac to help in the rescue.
“My remembrance of this is that I’d never seen the Potomac frozen over as bad as “it was that day,” said Smyth.
It was a dangerous trip for the tug boat, as chunks of ice hit the hull of the boat heading upriver.
“As I look in the distance, I see news helicopters, I see all kinds of activity on the 14th Street Bridge,” said Smyth.
He arrived to a scene of chaos, “It was just a shock in your face. There was a truck off the bridge, I could see there was traffic that was stuck up there,” said Smyth.
A U.S. Park Service helicopter heroically hovered above the water to pull victims from the crash, at times the skids from the chopper were in the water as they pulled in victims. Smyth says he could see bodies floating in the water, he helped pull one of them on board the tug.
“When I pulled that fatality aboard, I covered that fatality up because I didn’t want to have the other crew members get upset because it kind of upset me,” said Smyth.
Later, he could see other debris floating up from the wreck.
“About ten minutes later I see these baby toys pop up and I pull them up and I’m already sad because I know there’s victims here and they all have family members and I just felt really sad,” said Smyth.
He spent four hours on the frozen river as part of the recovery effort. At one point another crew member slipped on the frozen deck of the tug and nearly slipped into the river.
“He goes down on his stomach and he’s going completely off the side of the boat so I immediately, I mean instantaneously without even thinking, jumped on his legs and held him,” said Smyth.
Now, 40 years later, he’s being recognized by the Navy for his actions that day. Smyth has been given a humanitarian medal for helping.
“People ought to know there was a lot of people out there risking their lives for this entire situation,” said Smyth.