In the words of a clergyman,
On January 13, 1982, during an extraordinary period of freezing weather, Air Florida Flight 90 took off from nearby Washington National Airport, failed to gain altitude, and crashed into the bridge, where it hit six cars and a truck on the bridge, killing four motorists.
After the devastating crash on the bridge, the plane then continued forward and plunged into the freezing Potomac River. Soon only the tail section which had broken off remained afloat. Only six of the airliner's 79 occupants (74 passengers and 5 crew members) were able to escape the sinking plane in the middle of the ice-choked river.
According to the other five survivors, one passenger was pinned to the fuselage of the plane, but continued to help the others reach the rescue ropes being dropped by the hovering helicopter, repeatedly passing the line to others instead of using it himself. After lifting and towing two badly injured passengers to shore one at a time, an attempt was made to use two lines to haul three more, but as the tow to shore was underway, two of the three fell back into the icy water.
As fatigue set in, one of the survivors was too weak to grab the line again, so another bystander, a government office assistant Lenny Skutnik, stripped off his coat and boots, and in short sleeves, dove into the icy water, and swam out to assist her. The helicopter then proceeded to where the other had fallen.
Paramedic Gene Windsor, standing on the right skid of the helicopter, and without a safety harness, was able to physically lift a female victim out of the icy water by her clothing and up onto the helicopter skid, resting her on his boot. When the additional weight of the victim transferred onto the aircraft, the skids on the helicopter were seen to submerge into the icy water. Pilot Don Usher quickly corrected by adding more lift and then, with Paramedic Windsor holding the victim by the clothing, hovered the aircraft over to rescuers on the shore.
While the other five were being taken to shore by the helicopter, the tail section of the wrecked Boeing 737 shifted and sank further into the water, dragging Arland D. Williams Jr. under the water with it.
The next day, the Washington Post described his heroism:
An essay in TIME magazine dated January 25, 1982, was written before the identity of Williams was known. Roger Rosenblatt, the essay's author, wrote:
So the man in the water had his own natural powers. He could not make ice storms, or freeze the water until it froze the blood. But he could hand life over to a stranger, and that is a power of nature too. The man in the water pitted himself against an implacable, impersonal enemy; he fought it with charity; and he held it to a standoff. He was the best we can do."
It took some time to investigate and establish without any doubt Williams' identity and extraordinarily heroic and selfless behavior. His actions caused him to stand out even among the other four outstanding heroes of that tragic day.
On June 6, 1983, Williams was posthumously awarded the United States Coast Guard's Gold Lifesaving Medal in a White House Oval Office presentation to his family by U.S. President Ronald Reagan and U.S. Secretary of Transportation Elizabeth H. Dole. Mrs. Virginia Williams accepted the medal on her son's behalf. Other participants in the ceremony included the recipient's father, Arland, his children, Arland III and Leslie Ann, and his sister, Jean Fullmer. Also present were Vice Admiral Benedict L. Stabile and Vice Commandant of the United States Coast Guard, Commander D. C. Addison, Senator Charles H. Percy and Representative Daniel B. Crane of Illinois.
As a lasting tribute, the repaired 14th Street Bridge over the Potomac River at the crash site, which had been officially named the "Rochambeau Bridge," was renamed the "Arland D. Williams Jr. Memorial Bridge" in his honor by the city government of the District of Columbia in 1983.
On May 15, 1993, former U.S. President Ronald Reagan retold the story of Arland D. Williams Jr. and paid tribute to him during a commencement address at The Citadel, The Military College of South Carolina.
In 2000, The Citadel, The Military College of South Carolina — and Williams' alma mater (Class of 1957) — created the Arland D. Williams Society to recognize graduates who distinguished themselves through community service. The Citadel also established the Arland D. Williams Endowed Professorship of Heroism in his honor.
Pop/folk singer Sara Hickman's song "Last Man in the Water" is a tribute to Williams' heroic act.