On January 13, 1982, I was fourteen years old and thousands of miles away from Washington, D.C. I'd never been there before and I had no connection to the city at all. But I sat on my living room floor glued to the television, watching news reports out of Washington as rescue efforts tried to save the passengers of Air Florida Flight 90.

I have no idea why this event is so indelibly etched in my mind. It didn't affect me personally. No one I knew lived in the area. But for some reason, I hung on every word about the disaster... from the survivors, to the traffic problems it caused in the area (which further exacerbated the gridlock and thwarted rescue attempts) and the Metro's first fatal subway accident (which also happened that day - the city couldn't get a break), to the "sixth passenger "and the early speculation about who he might have been. I remember watching as Lenny Skutnik dove into the water to help that woman who couldn't hold onto the rescue line. I remember as President Reagan introduced him at the State of the Union address a couple of weeks later and a couple of years later when the inevitable tv movie came out (Because that's what we did after a big disaster in the 70s and 80s. To deal with the tragedy, we immortalized it in film.), my family set aside the evening to watch. It didn't hurt that one of my favorite actors, Richard Masur, played Roger Olian, one of the first bystanders to jump into the water from the road to try to help.

I've often reflected on that event over the years. When I was in my early 20s and I came to Washington on a sightseeing trip with my family, we biked across the 14th Street bridge and I thought of that plane and those people, just yards away from me. Now I live a mere handful of miles from that spot. I've spent a lot of time downtown but to this day, I have never driven across that bridge without silently considering the ghosts there for at least a moment or two.

As a young teenager, this was my first awareness of America's lust for a tragedy... and it was tragic. But I think what stayed with me was the heroism... and the disappointment that, after so much heroism, only five people from the plane survived. Though I know it's impossible, I still desperately want to open up a paper and find that they made a mistake. They miscounted on the flight manifest or somehow found more survivors who managed to get out of the water and were routed to a different hospital or picked up by a passing motorist. It's now twenty-seven years later, so when I say it stuck with me, I mean it stuck. with. me.

This has been on my mind the past few weeks as I've learned more about the the crew and passengers of Flight 1549 (hey look, there's already a Wikipedia entry) and watched some of them make appearances and talk about their experiences.

In the hours after the plane's ditch into the Hudson river, I happened to see one of the passengers interviewed in the hospital on a local New York news station. He was lying on a gurney, wearing a white shirt with pilots' bars on the shoulders and talking about the pilot and how skillfully he landed the plane in the water. Then he described how the pilot ensured that every last one of the passengers and crew had gotten out the door by walking the length of the plane multiple times to make sure no one had been left behind. The reporter gestured toward the pilots' bars on the shoulder of the shirt the man was wearing and said, "Are you a part of the crew?"

"No," the man said, "when I was standing on the wing of the plane, I said I was cold, so the pilot took his shirt off and gave it to me."


I just watched the 60 Minutes interview with pilot Chesley Sullenberger thanks to the wonders of the digital video recorder, and was fascinated by his deep blue eyes, perfectly chosen words and calm demeanor. And I'll admit, the cynic inside me reared its ugly head and I couldn't help but think to myself, Is this guy too good to be true?

We want our heroes to be heroes, but in order to really play the part, they also have to eschew the role and avoid the spotlight. Because if they don't, in our minds they just become one of the scads of media whores we're so used to seeing on the airwaves (I'm looking at you, Joe the Plumber). If they do manage to stay out of the public eye, we clamor for more. It's an all but impossible balancing act, and Sullenberger seems to have managed it. Check out these last words of the interview:
Katie Couric: "You've been called a hero by a lot of people; how do you feel about that?"

Sullenberger: "I don't feel comfortable embracing it, but I don't want to deny it. I don't want to diminish their thankful feeling toward me by telling them that they're wrong. And I'm beginning to understand why they might feel that way."

Couric: "Why is that?"

Sullenberger: "Something about this episode has captured people's imagination. I think they want good news. I think they want to feel hopeful again. And if I can help in that way, I will."

It's tricky stuff, this heroism. Sully and his crew are heroes, but watching them at the Superbowl and in other cameos they've made in the past weeks, I'm struck by the idea that they all looked like they wanted to return to their lives and just go home -- which makes them even more heroic, at least to me. And I can't help but think that Arland Williams is watching and feeling proud.