A helicopter used to save five people after a plane crashed into the freezing Potomac River decades ago has been saved from the scrap heap and will be preserved in a museum in D.C.
It was bitterly cold on Jan. 13, 1982, when an Air Florida flight took off from Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport and smashed into the 14th Street Bridge. The craft plunged into the Potomac. Seventy-four out of 79 passengers on the plane were killed, as well as four motorists on the bridge.
Helicopter pilot Don Usher and his partner Gene Windsor were able to save the lives of five passengers.
The Bell helicopter, once known by the U.S. Park Police as Eagle One, was retired after decades of service to the Interior Department and destined for the junkyard. But curators at the still-under-construction National Law Enforcement Museum instead chose to restore it and include it in their collection of artifacts.
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"It will show a side of law enforcement that sometimes people don't necessarily recognize. And that is, in this case, the heroic efforts of the pilots and the operators of this aircraft," said Dave Brant, the museum's executive director.
Once the museum is completed, Eagle One will lift off for the final time — to its permanent resting place, the atrium of the new building.
The chopper's most remarkable takeoff occurred more than 35 years ago, when the Air Florida flight crashed moments after takeoff. Dozens of people were killed. Usher and Windsor were able to save five lives.
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Those passengers were plucked out of the icy waters and lifted ashore. Dramatic video shows one woman grabbing onto the helicopter just as the plane disappeared underwater.
Usher brought Eagle One so close to the icy river, Windsor's shoes got wet as he stood on the submerged skid of the chopper, dragging one of the passengers to safety.
News footage of the rescues was captured by News4 photographer Chester Panzer. He was a Pulitzer Prize finalist in 1983 for the work.
The crash was initially blamed on air traffic controllers, according to the National Law Enforcement Museum. A black box recording later revealed that the pilot decided to take off even though his first officer raised concerns over plane malfunctions.
Eagle One was retired from police service. It was then used by the U.S. Department of the Interior for decades.
A few years ago, it was scheduled to be scrapped. That’s when the National Law Enforcement Museum stepped in.
A crew took the craft apart and restored it to its original condition. It's so big, it had to be brought into the building piece-by-piece during construction.
The National Law Enforcement Museum is slated to open Oct. 13, and will showcase the history of law enforcement in America. It will feature thousands of artifacts, including large vehicles like Eagle One and an Arkansas wildlife pickup truck that was riddled with bullet holes during a shootout.
Editor's Note (Jan. 13, 2023): The National Law Enforcement Museum opened in October 2018 with the Eagle One helicopter displayed in the atrium.