February 01, 1982 12:00 PM

If the magnitude of a disaster is measured only by body count, then the deadly plunge of Air Florida Flight 90 into the Potomac was far from the nation’s worst. But measured by emotional impact, it was the most nightmarish in recent memory. Day after day the grim scenes were repeated: rescue workers searching the frozen river for shards of the Boeing 737—and the remnants of human lives. A week after the crash the recovery was still not complete, the demands for explanation remained unanswerable.

Improbably, five people survived the impact—and one other, in death, purchased a kind of immortality. A helicopter pilot reported that a passenger repeatedly and selflessly passed his lifeline to others. “We went back five times, and he passed it each time,” recalled the pilot. “The sixth time, he was gone.” The “man in the water” became an overnight hero to a country that did not know his name. But among those fitting his description—baldish, middle-aged and wearing a flamboyant mustache—were Atlanta bank executive Arland Williams, 46, Theodore Smolen, 48, an aerospace worker, and Dr. Edward Krzanowski, 36 (whose wife and two children died with him).

In the aftermath, a disturbing question arose: Could more of the victims have been saved? (See following article.) But the survivors counted themselves impossibly lucky to be alive.

Kelly Duncan, a 23-year-old flight attendant from Miami, Fla., had checked the passengers’ seat belts and strapped herself into her rear jump-seat moments before the crash. Her father, Delta Airlines pilot Jerry Duncan, who encouraged her to take the stewardess job in 1978, says that Kelly blacked out on impact and can’t remember unfastening her belt as the plane sank in 30 feet of water. “She remembers being underwater and having to swim up. It must have been pretty deep because it took a long time.”

Gasping for air, Kelly could hear shouts of “Hang in there” from motorists on the 14th Street Bridge. Her sodden flight uniform and knee-high boots threatened to drag her down, and the numbing cold from the 31°F water seeped into her body. When she tried holding the floating wreckage, her hands stuck to the freezing metal. Frightened, she let go. Lapsing in and out of consciousness, Kelly remembers five other people afloat beside her. A woman later identified as Patricia Feltch asked Kelly’s help in donning a life jacket. Her hands useless, Kelly triggered the inflation valve with her teeth. Kelly’s eventual rescue was replayed around the world—the helicopter miraculously lifting the semiconscious woman out of the gray water, lowering her into a dozen eager arms on the shore. “She kept losing consciousness,” says her father, “so she didn’t know how she was rescued until she saw it on TV.”

The stewardess’ family was spared the agony of waiting to learn if she was among the handful of survivors. In Atlanta her stepfather, Bob Kleinschmidt, recognized Kelly in the televised rescue scenes. “Her sister Keri called. I turned on the set and there she was. I was sure.”

When Kelly reached a makeshift emergency room at the hospital in Arlington, Va., she was close to death from severe hypothermia. Her body temperature was in the mid-80s and did not register on a conventional thermometer. Delirious from the ordeal, she screamed, “Get me out of the water. Please get me out of the water. Help me, help me.” A paramedic put his face close to Kelly’s and reassured her. Doctors administered warm oxygen to raise her body temperature slowly back to normal.

In good condition from swimming and snorkeling—which her father believes helped her escape from the submerged plane—Kelly recovered quickly. Five days after the crash, with casts on her broken right wrist and left ankle, she checked out of the hospital and went to her mother’s Atlanta home. “Physically, she’s all right,” says her stepfather. “But psychologically—those crew members who were killed were her friends. It’s going to take her a long time to get over this.” Kelly is uncertain about resuming her career, but she says firmly, “I still think flying is the safest way to travel.”

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