January 15, 2015: Barry Cauchon
Washington D.C: Three days ago (January 12) the Washington DC Metrorail subway system experienced a tragic subway fire that caused heavy smoke to fill the tunnel and engulf a stopped train. Many suffered smoke inhalation and one died from the incident. The occurrence received national coverage by all the major news media outlets.
This was the third major tragedy to strike the Washington DC Metrorail subway system. The second occurred on June 22, 2009 when a southbound train on the Red Line slammed into the back of another train stopped on the tracks ahead of it. Nine people lost their lives. This disaster also received national attention.
Unlike the two accidents that would follow it in 2009 and 2015, the very first fatal incident to occur in the history of the Washington Metrorail subway is barely known to most. In that tragedy three people died and yet the story received little media coverage. With that said, what made this event different from the other two to practically be ignored and almost lost to history! The answer is not a malicious one but rather one of shear coincidence. The subway accident was overshadowed by an even greater disaster that occurred minutes before it and only about a mile away. Both happened in the same city, on the same day and within the same hour.
The day was Wednesday, January 13, 1982. A heavy snow had fallen all day on Washington and many commuters had left work early to beat the rush hour traffic. At 4:00 pm, just twenty-nine minutes before the subway accident would occur, the first tragedy unfolded. A commercial airliner, Air Florida Flight 90 carrying 74 passengers and 5 crew, took off from Washington National Airport from runway 36. As the plane began to climb, snow and ice build-up on the wings caused the jet to suddenly lose altitude and in less than a minute, crashed onto the top of the 14th Street Bridge. Seven occupied vehicles were crushed as the jet careened off the bridge and then disappeared beneath the icy waters of the Potomac River. On the bridge, four people were killed and four were injured. Incredibly, six people from the plane somehow survived the crash and escaped the broken wreckage lying beneath the water. Injured but alive, they found their way to the surface and clung to what little wreckage remained above water. Surrounded by broken ice and immersed in jet fuel and frigid water, these six survivors became the immediate focus of witnesses, rescuers, emergency personnel and the media, who arrived shortly thereafter. All were helpless to assist the survivors as they were too far from the shore. One heroic civilian, Roger Olian ran from his car and dove into the water, swimming out from shore to try to reach the survivors but was unable to reach their location. Approximately twenty minutes after the crash, a US Park Service police helicopter arrived on scene and began dropping safety rings and life lines to the survivors. One survivor, Arland D. Williams, Jr., age 46, bravely passed the life lines he was dropped to other survivors first, allowing them to be pulled to shore thus saving their lives. Once the fifth survivor had made it to shore, the helicopter returned to pick up Arland. To the officers’ shock, Williams was no where to be seen. He had quietly slipped unnoticed beneath the waters of the frozen Potomac. His body would be recovered days later. Arland D. Williams gave his life to save the others. The 14th Street Bridge was renamed the Arland D. Williams Memorial Bridge to commemorate his bravery and selfless act of heroism.
The entire rescue operation was captured live by news camera crews and broadcast around the world. While their attention was focused on the plane crash and rescue operation, very few were aware of the subway accident that had just occurred minutes after the helicopter arrived at the Potomac.
It was 4:29 pm when an eastbound train on the Orange Line between the Federal Triangle and Smithsonian stations (just outside the National Museum of American History) encountered a problem. Approximately 1200 people were onboard at the time of the accident. The train had been unintentionally routed onto a crossover track so the crew were in the process of backing up when the last car derailed and was crushed into a concrete pillar. Of the +-220 people in this car, three were killed and 25 injured.
As horrific as the subway accident was for all involved, it was overshadowed by the Air Florida plane crash and survivor rescue. To this day, few know about the accident. And as time has passed, it has almost been forgotten entirely.
- Both accidents happened thirty-three years ago on January 13, 1982.
- Both occurred in Washington DC approximately a mile apart from each other.
- Both were during rush hour and happened within a half hour of each other.
- Both resulted in a total of 81 deaths and 29 injuries.
- Both had heroes and unsung heroes.
Personal note: I vividly remember watching the national news coverage of this plane crash and the rescue of the survivors. I couldn’t pull myself away from the television. Short of the 9/11 coverage, few televised live events have gripped my attention like this one. But as hard as I try to remember back to that evening, I cannot recall hearing anything about the subway accident.
It was only in January, 2010 (five years ago), while researching details for a blog on the Air Florida crash, that I discovered the subway tragedy. The sheer coincidence of having not one, but two disasters in the same city, on the same day and almost at the same time amazed me. Although I had written a draft of the blog, for some reason I never published it. And every year since then, as the anniversary of the disasters neared, I had planned on posting it. But it never happened…until this year. I think the catalyst to publish now was the recent subway incident. My mind looks for connections or coincidences that may or may not make any sense. This event occurred in the same city, almost on the same day and time as the 1982 event. Is there a connection or is it just strange timing or coincidence? It doesn’t really matter and it’s not rational. But it did spark me to finish this article and get it online.
The one big difference I see in me now as compared to five years ago, is that the people who lost their lives or loved ones in these tragedies are on my mind much more now as compared to back then when I was more interested in just sharing facts, figures and the intimate horrific details. Those facts are necessary but are not the heart of the story. It’s the human element that attracts us. In 1982, it was the survivor rescue that held me glued to the TV.
As I mature as a writer, and generally as a human being, I am becoming more emotionally in tune with the people who are involved in these tragedies and my heart goes out to all the victims, survivors, their families and friends, rescuers, heroes and unsung heroes. The events may disappear from our memories in time but the people should never be forgotten. They are the real story.