“Palm 90, how do you read?” That was the question the control tower at National Airport in Washington, D.C. asked on the afternoon of January 13, 1982. It would soon be apparent that Palm 90 had crashed. Palm 90 was the call sign for an Air Florida flight bound for Fort Lauderdale. Palm 90’s take off had been delayed because of a driving snow storm. The plane was de-iced during the delay, but falling temperatures and epic snow fall apparently caused the wings of the plane to ice over again. Palm 90 never achieved enough altitude on take-off to clear the 14th Street Bridge across the Potomac River located a short distance from the end of the runway. Cars on the bridge were struck and four people were killed as they sat in traffic simply trying to get home. The flight crashed into the Potomac and sank through the ice. There were heroic bystanders that helped save four of those who had survived the crash.
The early release of Federal workers to escape the 1982 storm had filled the 14th Street Bridge full of cars. Emergency vehicles were hampered by the weather conditions and the traffic on the bridge. In short, it was about as bad as it can get. Some might call the flight of Palm 90 “ill-fated”. As humans we search to find reasons for why things happen. Pilot error and the weather were advanced as potential reasons for the crash. Often though tragedies such as the crash of Palm 90 or the Titanic are referred to as ill-fated. What does it mean to be ill-fated? Does it presuppose that one who is involved in the event is the victim of bad luck or part of some other predestined event mapped out in advance by God? Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary refers to it as “having or destined to a hapless fate.” That definition doesn’t answer the question of “why” or “how” those who died happened to be there. When one steps into the cabin of an airplane there is always the knowledge that it may crash, even if the chances are small. A person driving home on the 14th Street Bridge hit by a crashing airplane must be an event as unlikely to occur as one can imagine. Yet, there it is–it happened, but why? Stuff does happen, but that old phrase doesn’t explain why. The chances of being killed by a falling airplane must be longer than winning the Power Ball Lottery. People do win the lottery. People do die because of crashing airplanes.
I hadn’t thought about this crash for awhile. This week I flew into National and the Potomac was iced over. It jogged my memory as we flew a few hundred feet above the 14th Street Bridge and the icy Potomac. Unlike Palm 90, my flight was not ill-fated. I would love to hear your thoughts about whether this is random luck or part of some bigger plan.