Rescue workers turn to salvage operation

By DENIS F. GULINO  |  Jan. 14, 1982
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WASHINGTON -- Screaming jetliners punctuated the chill quiet over the murky waters of the Potomac River Thursday as rescue workers continued a sober salvage operation on the remains of Air Florida Flight 90.

Few of the workers looked up at the planes, taking off along the same departure route used by the Boeing 737 that crashed in a snowstorm Wednesday with 79 people aboard.

Instead, they battled new snow, bone-chilling water and jagged ice - and the knowledge they would find no more survivors in the blue and white hulk beneath the water. At least 60 bodies were believed still inside the twisted fuselage.

The overcast sky was dead white and snow, which had let up overnight, began pelting down again in early afternoon. The death toll stood at 76.

Men and equipment poured in -- Navy salvage experts, teams from the Army Corps of Engineers, Harbor Police, the Army, Air Force and Coast Guard, a big blue crane, a derrick, a winch, pontoons, helicopters, a red fire boat, motorboats, tugboats, dinghies and a barge, diving platforms, cold-weather diving gear.

Workers erected warming tents for the divers on the bank of the river nearest where the plane drop into the water after clipping the 14th Street Bridge.

Communications gear was set up and the Salvation Army served coffee, donuts and sandwiches.

By midafternoon three Corps of Engineers tugboats had cleared much of the ice from where the main wreckage was believed lodged in 27 feet of water. A floating platform was positioned over the spot for use by the divers who will pinpoint the debris.

They were settling in for an operation that might last for days - or perhaps weeks.

'Since weather conditions preclude any survivors, we might as well do it right -- carefully and slowly,' Lt. Dan Kerr said. 'It's like preserving the evidence.'

During the night, police removed wreckage from the northbound span of the bridge, where the plane plowed into five automobiles and a truck and ripped out a 60-foot section of guard rail in its downward plunge. Two people died on the bridge, a major commuter artery.

But the surface of the river below still was littered for 50 yards around with debris -- greenish insulation material, plastic, twisted metal and clothing -- some of it floating free, some of it frozen in ice floes.

Amid the flotsam, rescue workers found two more bodies, an infant and an adult woman. 'The only reason we got those two was because they were floating on the water,' Police officer Jim Battle said.

Sen. John Warner, R-Va., Gov. John Dalton of Virginia and Charles Robb, who will succeed Dalton in two days, arrived from Richmond shortly before 9 a.m. They said the storm prevented them from coming sooner.

'It was obviously a tragedy, a very grim scene,' said Robb, who lives nearby in McLean, Va. He said there was certain to be renewed debate over the safety of National Airport but this was not the time to address the question.

Warner defended the airport. 'Bear in mind,' he said, 'according to history, the last accident at National Airport was in 1949. That points out a fine safety record for this airport.'

An hour later President Reagan viewed the scene from a helicopter taking him from the White House en route to a speaking engagement in New York City.

Police Inspector James Shugart said the first thing divers must do is to find the plane's fuselage and determine whether most of the victims are still trapped in their seats.

They will mark their finds with buoys and report to federal and local authorities who will decide whether to try to raise the plane intact or to get the bodies out of the submerged fuselage.

'Then the recovery process will be slow and tedious,' Shugart said.

'The diving will be extremely difficult,' he said. 'The conditions are at least very poor and I'm sure its going to be a time-consuming effort depending on how long the divers can stay in, what conditions they confront once they are in the water and what is best for them. We must keep in mind their safety.'

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