The tradition of presidents introducing guests at the State of the Union address and telling homey / heartwarming / inspirational stories about them is young in the grand scheme of American history. The first instance was in 1982 and it quickly became a bulwark of the Cheap Political Theater repertoire for the men in the White House. And there is a name for the phenomenon: a guest referenced by the president during the address is called a "Lenny Skutnik." Why? Well I'm glad you asked.

On January 13, 1982, just a week before the SOTU address, Washington D.C. was experiencing one of its worst winter storms in recent memory. A 737 from now-defunct Air Florida prepared to take off in 20 F and moderate to heavy snowfall. After being de-iced, delays caused the plane to wait for 49 minutes on the apron before being cleared for takeoff. Already running late, the pilots chose to take off rather than returning to apply another de-icing spray. Several other errors of inexperience with flying in snow (Air Florida, after all) including the failure to activate the integral engine de-icing system resulted in the plane attempting to take off with substantially less thrust than the instruments indicated. Imagine your speedometer reading 65 but your actual speed barely hitting 40 thanks to a half ton layer of ice.

The engines wheezed and choked with ice as the plane barely made it off the ground. Almost immediately it lost lift. It rapidly descended into the frozen solid Potomac River, striking the 14th Street bridge (killing four drivers in traffic bound cars) and smashing into the ice. It sank almost immediately. Some passengers are presumed to have survived the crash, as the plane barely got off the ground, but with heavy winter clothing and subzero water temperatures most of them never had a chance. As horrified crowds looked on a small number of flailing human forms appeared on the surface of the water. But without immediate rescue, the cold water would take them too.

A US Park Police helicopter was on it almost immediately, flying dangerously low over the water to drop a line to six survivors. One passenger, later identified as Arland Williams, Jr., passed the lifeline to other people three separate times. He did not survive. One woman he tried to help was too weak from hypothermia to hold the line. She was sinking in full view of hundreds of freezing onlookers.

Heroism called. Lenny Skutnik, a Mississippian working for the Congressional Budget Office, accepted the charges.

He took off his coat and boots and launched himself into the water. He broke his foot striking a chunk of ice, but fortunately he was too frozen to notice it. He somehow dragged the woman to the shore. She was the last survivor of Flight 90 and Martin "Lenny" Skutnik became a national hero overnight. President Reagan invited him to the address and said:

In the midst of a terrible tragedy on the Potomac, we saw again the spirit of American heroism at its finest – the heroism of dedicated rescue workers saving crash victims from icy waters. And we saw the heroism of one of our young Government employees, Lenny Skutnik, who, when he saw a woman lose her grip on the helicopter line, dived into the water and dragged her to safety.

It was the last time a Republican praised someone who worked for the government.

74 of 79 passengers and crew on Flight 90 died, as did 4 people on the bridge. Skutnik, who also received the Coast Guard Lifesaving Medal and a thousand other awards, retired in 2010 after 31 years of service at the CBO. Air Florida filed for bankruptcy two years later. Its market niche was later filled by a startup called ValuJet.



  • Air Florida -> Valujet -> AirTran

    My father was on the Boeing in-house team that investigated the ValuJet 592 crash over the everglades.

  • Thanks for bringing this up. I remember this incident–as I recall it,
    Mr. Skutnik handled the ensuing media storm with a lot of grace also.

  • "It was the last a Republican praised someone working for the government."

    What about Dubya and his "heck of a job, Brownie" comment during Katrina?

  • @bill:
    Political appointee? Ok to praise.
    Just some schmuck working for the CBO? Major source of waste, fraud and abuse whose job should be cut…

  • @ Tom

    AirTran is a little bare-bones, but I think they're a decent budget airline and they have some direct flights that the major carriers don't have. And both AirTran and Southwest are far more pleasant flying experiences than the major U.S. carriers (United/American/Delta).

  • I was at a wedding a few years ago, seated at a table with a pair of pilots, one from Untied and the other from whatever Continental is now. I mentioned that I flew Southwest because it usually was a better deal and less time consuming.

    They both brought up the flight that went off the runway at Midway (Chicago) and killed a few people. I was thinking, "ReallY?".

  • And not one of the self-centered bastards in the House Chamber for the SOTU that night would have done the same thing as Skutnik — least of all Reagan.

  • @democommie: The Southwest flight that went off the runway at Midway killed ONE person in a car on the street.

  • I remember that plane crash–but I do not remember that the passengers all mostly died of hypothermia or any of those acts of heroism. I do remember it happened at rush hour, though. I most certainly did not watch the State of the Union address, though. I was busy telling people that Reagan is the devil.

  • For a value airline, I found the airTran experience to be quite nice. Assigned seats, XM driven entertainment system and the opportunity to upgrade to whatever Business Class seats were left for an extra $49 or $99 depending on the length of the flight.

    Southwest, on the other hand, a complete garbage experience. Cattle call seating, dozens of people faking injuries to get early boarding; injuries that mysteriously disappeared upon landing, generally surly employees and tickets that were more expensive than their competitors.

    So naturally Southwest and their shit business model bought out airTran and their good one (ridding themselves of the 717s and many of the destinations that airTran flew in the process). I fly neither anymore, obviously.

    Republicans spend their time verbally humping the military. Does that count as praising a government employee?

  • And then the louses named the airport after the wrong guy in that video. If Skutnit National Airport doesn't sound right, it could at least be Arland Williams Jr. National Airport.

  • I left work in Springfield Va. early that day to get home before the snow became too heavy. One plans one route to be as flat as possible and for me it was north on 95 to the GW Parkway, then up the river to my exit, then home. I almost crossed the 14th st bridge to take Canal road to Chain bridge to see a friend on MacArthur Blvd, but the following climb up Old Glebe Rd. to get home would have been the stopper for sure. Anyway, got home, took a nap and when I woke up and turned on the TV, there it was. I was horrified. I would have been on the 14th St Bridge but for a change in route.

  • My father had just been stationed in Maryland (our first stateside tour in many years) a few weeks before this terrible accident. I came home from high school and it was all over the news. I had been finding the snow a bit much to get used to, and I was horrified, that the accident was caused by an airplane icing over on the runway.

  • Bitter Scribe says:

    There was an essay in Harper's or the Atlantic–can't remember which one–that sarcastically noted that rescues like Shutnick's should be the norm under Reagan's philosophy of government. After all, Reagan and his cabinet officers kept saying that private charities and churches should take over feeding the poor, so why not have private initiative take over river rescues?

  • "And not one of the self-centered bastards in the House Chamber for the SOTU that night would have done the same thing as Skutnik — least of all Reagan."

    But Reagan would've remembered doing it afterward.

Comments are closed.