Roger Olian

Roger W. Olian was a sheet-metal foreman at St Elizabeth's, a Washington, D.C. hospital for the mentally ill. He acted heroically following the crash of Air Florida Flight 90 on January 13, 1982, in the Potomac River at Washington, D.C. A total of 78 persons were killed on that day of both tragedy and extraordinary heroism.

Air Florida Flight 90

The day had brought one of the worst blizzards in history to Washington, D.C. At 3:59 p.m. EST, the twin-engine Boeing 737 was cleared for takeoff and began rumbling down the runway, but ice on its wings hampered its lift. It finally took off but was unable to gain altitude, and at 4:01 p.m. EST it crashed into the Rochambeau span of 14th Street Bridge complex, striking seven vehicles before plunging through the 1 inch thick ice into the Potomac River. Only 6 persons were able to escape the plane, as all but the tail section was quickly submerged.

Hampered response

The United States Coast Guard Cutter Capstan and crew based nearby whose duties include responding to such a water rescue were some considerable distance away on another rescue mission. Emergency ground response was greatly hampered by ice covered roads and gridlocked traffic. Ambulances attempting to reach the scene drive even were driven down the sidewalk in front of the White House.

According to a story in Observer Magazine,

"Roger Olian, a sheet-metal foreman at St. Elizabeths, a Washington hospital for the mentally ill, was on his way home across the 14th Street bridge when he heard a man yelling that there was a plane in the water. Olian thought he was crazy, but ran down the bank to take a look. He saw the tail of a full-sized jet; the rest was gone. In the water were the handful of survivors screaming for help. 'I was overwhelmed with the fact there was nothing you could do,' he recalls. 'Nothing to use. No trees for branches. The only option was to stand on the bank and hope something happened - or hop in.' He hopped.

"He didn't have much of a plan except to get close to the victims and tell them that help was on the way - even though he didn't believe it. He knew a boat couldn't navigate through the ice, and he wasn't sure a helicopter could make it through the storm. People on the bank made a makeshift rope, using jumper cables and scarves, and threw it to Olian to tie around his waist. There were no cameras as Olian plunged into the water. He made his way through the water and over ice floes for 20 minutes, yelling words of encouragement. Finally a helicopter appeared, and the people on the bank pulled Olian back to shore."

The helicopter, manned by pilot Donald W. Usher and paramedic Melvin E. (Gene) Windsor, was able to begin rescuing five of the six survivors by towing them to shore with a lifeline. The sixth survivor, later identified as Arland D. Williams Jr., was still attached to part of the plane. He repeatedly passed the line to others. After lifting and towing two badly injured passengers to shore one at a time, when the helicopter returned, an attempt was made to use 2 lines to haul 3 more, and two fell back into the icy water. By then one of these was too weak to grab the line, 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, and paramedic Gene Windsor dropped from the safety of the helicopter into the water to attach a line to her. By the time the helicopter crew could return for Arland Williams, he and the airplane's tail section had disappeared beneath the icy surface. His body and those of the other occupants were later recovered. According to the coroner, Arland Williams who passed the lifeline to others was the only plane passenger to die by drowning.

Multiple acts of heroism acknowledged

Lenny Skutnik and Roger Olian were awarded the United States Coast Guard's Gold Lifesaving Medal, as was Arland D. Williams Jr., posthumously.

Roger Olian, Lenny Skutnik, Donald Usher, and Melvin Windsor each received the Carnegie Hero Fund Medal.

See main article Air Florida Flight 90 for more information about the crash and rescue.

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