Thirty years ago today, Washington, D.C. witnessed one of its biggest air disasters in its history. Air Florida flight 90 crashed into the 14th Street Bridge, killing 78 people. I was interviewing in the Secretary of Transportation’s office at the time, and I recounted the story of our government’s reaction in my book, The Government/Press Connection: Press Officers and Their Offices (Brookings Press, 1984). It is a fascinating story of government response to crisis. Would we do better in today’s world of instant communications? But also note public information officials trying to contain misinformation as families wait for news: How would this now replay on cable TV and through social networking? Here is my account.
“It is almost four in the afternoon, January 13, 1982, and it has been snowing hard for several hours. Government workers were told to go home some time ago, and now the city block that is the Department of Transportation building appears almost deserted. I am about to go home too, putting on my overshoes in Linda Gosden’s [director of public affairs for the Department of Transportation] office. We have just returned from [Transportation] Secretary Drew Lewis’s senior staff meeting, an hour and a half devoted to a review of management priorities for the coming year. Gosden, as she does almost every day, is apologizing for taking me to a meeting that she thinks I must have found very dull. I tell her again that my study will be largely about ‘routine’; it is not necessary for me to observe a crisis. ‘Perhaps I’ll still catch one at State.’ A young man bursts into the room. ‘There’s a report a plane has crashed into the Fourteenth Street bridge.’ Gosden starts to run to Lewis’s office, perhaps the length of a football field away. My unbuckled snowshoes are flapping around my ankles as I unsuccessfully try to keep up.
“From the cabinet officer’s windows we should be able to see the bridge that is the crash scene. We can see only the flashing red lights of emergency vehicles through the snow and darkness. Others also rush to Lewis’s office. The television set is on. We keep switching channels, as people do when all stations are covering a crisis and each keeps repeating the same news. Air Florida flight 90 is down in what is apparently the worst disaster in the history of National Airport.
“Gosden organizes a team to monitor the three TV networks and the wires and the relay written summaries to Lewis. All phones are in use. Lewis calls [Defense Secretary] Caspar Weinberger and asks for military helicopters; the request is instantly granted. He then calls the Coast Guard commandant. He wants to know the location of the closest cutter. (It is several hours away in the lower Chesapeake Bay and will start for the site at once.) He calls the chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board, the agency responsible for determining the cause of the accident, and offers the facilities of his department, including a hangar at National Airport where the bodies can be taken. An official of Air Florida calls, and Lewis offers help in getting the plane out of the Potomac. David Gergen calls from the White House: with Gosden on an extension they compose a statement that the president might wish to make. Edwin Meese calls. He is worried that an aide may be on the plane. (Lewis’s office determines that he is not.) FAA Administrator Lynn Helms is about to board a plane at Dulles Airport; Lewis directs his general counsel, John Fowler, to go to FAA headquarters and keep him informed until Helms can get there. A low-level DOT employee who happens to be on the other side of the river is dispatched to the Marriott Hotel, which the National Transportation Safety Board is using as the crash headquarters.
“Eventually it is too dark and too cold to continue the rescue operation. Work is called off until morning. There are no more calls to make or answer. Bone-weary, we are reluctant to leave, to break a bond that has been created by working together through a crisis. We talk quietly. Some wonder how they will get home. Around ten o’clock, Dick Shoenfeld, Gosden’s assistant, drives me to my door, and after six hours I finally take off my flapping galoshes.
“Ted Cron, a former FDA press chief, once told me that the delicate balance in government press operations was to give all the information necessary to protect the public and at the same time try not to frighten people unreasonably. This had seemed to be Gosden’s concern. Too many people at too many places in government could have been giving out conflicting and unsubstantiated information. Still breathless from her dash to Lewis’s office, her first acts were to call the public affairs officers at the Federal Aviation Administration and National Airport, reminding them that all the facts must be verified before being released. There had already been some confusion on TV about whether the plane’s destination was Tampa or White Plains. The primary value of Gosden’s monitoring of the media was not to learn information but to check for possible misinformation.
“Gosden also had a hidden agenda. Hardly a person in Lewis’s office had not initially feared the crash was a result of an air tower mistake. Lewis had been responsible for firing the striking air controllers; if lives had now been lost because of inexperienced or overworked replacements, public reaction against the Reagan administration would be swift and painful. Based on the information on visibility available to him, Lewis, a licensed pilot, concluded that air controllers were not the cause of the crash. Gosden then began a series of quick calls to the networks, whose prime-time news programs were about to go on the air. She did not rule out an error on the part of an air controller; only the National Transportation Safety Board—not an arm of DOT—can determine the cause of an accident. Rather, Gosden gave reporters information that she hoped would allow them to draw a conclusion that the crash could not be blamed on the people in the control tower.
“I had seen a crisis and government’s response. It was at first chaotic. Many of the people who were needed were out of contact, stuck in cars or stranded at distant places. Everyone seemed to be trying to reach the same telephone numbers. Then something special happened. Until lines of authority were sorted out, people took on tasks that were above them or beneath them. Some ‘important’ people performed menial chores; some ‘unimportant’ people rose to heights beyond their normal abilities or usual responsibilities. Self-protective mechanisms seemed to evaporate. No one said, ‘Put it in writing’ or ‘According to the regulations . . .’ After a crisis of this kind there should be lessons to be learned, new designs for how to better anticipate and prepare, revisions of what has to be done, where, by whom, and in what order. But beyond the need for contingency planning, there is also the lesson of how well many people respond in the face of sudden adversity.”
— an excerpt from The Government/Press Connection: Press Officers and Their Offices (Brookings Press, 1984)