In A Nutshell
On January 13, 1982, Washington, D.C. was left practically helpless when a pair of disasters—a plane crash and a subway derailment which occurred within half an hour of each other—choked off air, rail, and automotive routes out of the city. Thousands of people were left stranded in the winter chaos.
The Whole Bushel
Many of us remember the events of September 11, 2001, as Americans and others around the world watched in captivated horror as bodies fell from the sky. But the nation had endured other horrifying aviation disasters before. On January 13, 1982, Washington, D.C. was suffering under blizzard conditions. Many offices and businesses closed early, and the streets were crawling with traffic. Air Florida Flight 90, headed for Fort Lauderdale, took off from Washington National Airport, but it was not destined to arrive. The plane had not been properly de-iced, and the pilots were young and inexperienced at flying in winter weather. The flight went down after gaining only a few hundred feet in altitude, smashing into the 14th Street Bridge over the Potomac River, crushing several cars before plunging into the water.
The heavy traffic made it difficult for first responders to arrive, with ambulances eventually resorting to driving on curbs. Despite several acts of heroism and self-sacrifice, 74 of the 79 people on the plane perished, with another four people killed on the bridge. This alone would have been devastating for any city, but the story was far from over. Due to the crash and the arrival of emergency vehicles, Washington’s busiest 12-lane expressway and several other roads were actually closed, thousands of cars sitting idle beneath the rapidly falling snow.
Then, just half an hour after Flight 90 went down, a train on the Washington Metro Line derailed between the Federal Triangle and Smithsonian stations. As mentioned, it was an early rush hour and the train was crowded with passengers. Three people were killed in the crash, and 25 more were injured. It would take hours for all the people to be cleared of the train cars, and would be the worst disaster in Washington Metro history until 2009, when two trains collided, killing nine.
There is no way of knowing how many thousands of people were trapped by this confluence of tragedy, with the cessation of air and rail service and the closing of roads. Those who managed to escape could only tell horror stories of hours-long commutes. After nightfall, many people abandoned their cars in the middle of the street for the warmth of hotels or bars. Snow would continue to fall through the night, but was nearly impossible to remove due to all the stranded vehicles. It would take the city a long time to fix the bridge and subway. Due to the icy conditions, Flight 90 sat at the bottom of the Potomac for weeks with many of its unfortunate passengers still strapped to its seats before it could be salvaged.