New York vacation brings back 37-year-old memory

My wife, Janet and I recently returned from a one-week vacation in New York. We stayed at the Sheraton Hotel right in the center of Times Square. Our room was on the 31st floor. 

It was a nice room, but not much of a view. When we opened the drapes all we could see was a high rise office building. I found myself falling asleep nights while counting the viewable lights on that building. For the first six days the weather was perfect, temps in the 70s and cool at night.

Then came Monday the seventh day. It rained on and off all day. We had seen three plays and went on a couple of tours, our plan was to take a taxi to Macy’s on that last day. After lunch we heard a loud, thunderous roar.

We walked out the main entrance of the hotel on Seventh Avenue. I looked to the left and saw two emergency vehicles had blocked off 51st street. With so many people on the street it was difficult moving closer to see what happened.

Within an hour of hearing that “thunderous roar” over 100 emergency vehicles had completely surrounded the area. We managed to cross 7th Ave and went into Rosie O’Grady’s and watched CNN on TV.

A helicopter crashed onto the top of the office building.  Yes, the same office I had counted the lights while falling asleep the night before.

After terrorism had been ruled out, it was determined that the pilot, who had many years of experience was attempting to fly from east Manhattan to his home port in New Jersey. The heavy rain and fog caused him to get lost and stray into a restricted area. He radioed for assistance prior to the crash. By crashing onto the top of that building he lost his life.  No one else was injured.  Imagine how many casualties there would have been, had he crashed into the center of Times Square.

This immediately brought back a 37-year-old memory.

In September of 2014 my brother Wayne was to speak at the National Harbor Convention Center in Oxen Hill Maryland. He invited Janet and I to come and he would call me on stage to talk about my book “From Darkness to Light: as I had done in Toronto and Cobo Hall in Detroit. At the last minute he had to cancel  because of severe back and neck pains.  We went ahead with our plans. There was no way I’d miss an opportunity to visit the Vietnam Memorial which we did the next morning.

We decided to take the ferry over to Alexandria for dinner.  During that ferry ride I spotted a bridge. I couldn’t take my eyes off it. I soon had an OMG moment like I’d never had before. I asked Janet if I ever told her about Lenny Skutnik. 

On the 13th of January, 1982 it began snowing early in the morning. This developed into a heavy snowfall and blizzard like conditions. This type of weather was very unusual for Washington, DC. Most of the federal offices in Washington, including the Pentagon in Arlington, VA closed early in the afternoon.  

This created a massive backup of traffic on most of the roads. After walking the quarter-mile to where my car was parked and cleaning off the snow and ice, I was on the road at 2:30. Traffic was crawling and at times came to a complete stand still. The usual 25 minute commute took all of four hours. It took nearly an hour just to reach the bridge. That is when it happened.

Air Florida’s Flight 90. A Boeing 737 crashed into the bridge. It crushed seven occupied vehicles on the bridge killing four before plunging through the ice into the Potomac River. There were seventy four passengers and five crew members on the aircraft.  Four passengers and one flight attendant survived. My timing was just right. If I had left an hour earlier, mine may have been one of those seven occupied vehicles.

A helicopter crew lowered life lines and pulled four of the survivors to safety. The fifth one, Priscilla Tirado, whose husband and child were killed was pain stricken and blinded by the jet fuel and was just too weak to grab the line. Several people had gathered on the bridge including me, hoping and praying for her safety.

How soon would she succumb to hypothermia?

Lenny Skutnik was not about to find out. You may have seen something like this in comic books, but this was really happening. He kicked off his shoes, ripped off his jacket, and dove into that icy water. Within two minutes he was pulling Priscilla out of the water. 

Two weeks later, during his State of the Union Address, President Reagan introduced Lenny Skutnik to the entire country and commended him for his actions.

In closing I’d like to mention the glorious feeling I had watching Priscilla Tirado being pulled from the water. My thoughts quickly took me back to a 19-year-old soldier who was brought to the emergency room during a mass casualty in Vietnam. He was missing a leg and had severe abdominal wounds and needed immediate surgery. The operating room was overloaded as were our three physicians.

He just had to wait a few minutes, but there was no time for waiting, I watched him die.  I’m not saying he would have survived had our facility been properly staffed. There was just no time for him and of course there was no Lenny Skutnik.

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