Visiting the Flight 93 memorial last weekend got me thinking about heroes. The other hero who sticks in my memory is Lenny Skutnik, an ordinary guy with an ordinary name who found himself unexpectedly confronting an immediate life-or-death decision.
Just about 30 years ago, on January 13, 1982, Air Florida Flight 90 was trying to take-off in a blizzard from National Airport on the Potomac River facing Washington, D.C. The airport had been closed during the heaviest snowfall, but reopened in the afternoon when the blizzard seemed to let up. According to the National Transportation Safety Board Report, the air temperature was 24 degrees Farenheit, and the wings of Air Florida Flight 90 required de-icing before take-off. Many federal offices closed early that afternoon to allow workers to try to get home before the blizzard resumed.
Because of inadequate de-icing, Air Florida Flight 90 was unable to gain sufficient altitude upon take-off, and crashed into the 14th Street Bridge and plunged into the Potomac River. Four motorists were killed on the bridge. Of the 79 passengers and crew on board the airplane, 74 died.
The handful of survivors from the crash clung to debris in the swirling, icy waters of the Potomac. Spectators lined the bridge and riverbank but were unable to help. Eventually a rescue helicopter arrived which was able to extract four of the survivors from the debris in the river. But a fifth survivor, a woman, was too exhausted and in shock to hang on to the rescue line lowered from the helicopter.
Lenny Skutnik was a 28-year old office assistant working in the Congressional Budget Office who was among the federal employees sent home early because of the snowstorm. He was standing on the riverbank about 30 feet from the woman in the frigid water too weak to hold on to the rescue line. He was close enough to see her face and know that she was almost gone.
If he did nothing, the woman was going to die in front of him. He coolly assessed his chances of rescuing her, took off his coat and boots, and plunged into the icy water. He swam to the exhausted woman and was able to grab her and push her to the riverbank where others rushed her to an ambulance. All this happened to be captured on television cameras.
Because of the television coverage, Skutnick was lionized by the media. He received numerous “hero” awards, and a standing ovation from the joint session of Congress assembled for President Reagan’s first State of the Union Address. Dustin Hoffman played a character in the movie “Hero” which was based in part on Skutnick’s experiences, including spontaneous standing ovations in restaurants and other public places when his presence was announced.
Lenny Skutnick was the real deal who deserved all the recognition he received. Confronted with a life-and-death situation, he acted as we hope and wish we might have acted had we been in the same situation. Whether any of us would or could have done the same thing we’ll probably never know. But we know what Lenny Skutnik actually did, and that’s what made him an authentic American hero.