The Man In The Water: Dying – So Others Could Live (1982)

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I am not a big reader of fiction books. Nothing wrong with them of course, but I have a love for true stories, especially stories of heroism and self-sacrifice on behalf of others. Some years ago, I ran across such a story. It captivated my interest and attention for years, so much so that I have used it as an illustration many times in public speaking engagements. Below are excerpts (all italicized) from the story – a true story – called “The Man In The Water” (written by Roger Rosenblatt, Time Magazine, January 25, 1982). It speaks of the tragic plane crash of Air Florida Flight 90 on January 13, 1982 in Washington D.C. Shortly after the plane took off, it crashed into the 14th Street Bridge – hitting 6 cars and a truck – and then into the icy Potomac River, killing 78 people altogether. As seen in the 4 pictures of this post, photographers and television crews were quickly on the scene, capturing images of the tragic scene.

There were 6 initial survivors of the crash. Rosenblatt writes below of the brave rescue efforts of these people by a helicopter team of pilot, Donald Usher, and paramedic, Gene Windsor – and the heroism of the 6th man – “The Man In The Water.”

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. . .the person most responsible for the emotional impact of the disaster is the one known at first simply as “the man in the water.” (balding, probably in his 50s, an extravagant mustache.) He was seen clinging with five other survivors to the tail section of the airplane.

This man was described by Usher and Windsor as appearing alert and in control. Every time they lowered a lifeline and flotation ring to him, he passed it on to another of the passengers.

“In a mass casualty, you’ll find people like him,” said Windsor. “But I’ve never seen one with that commitment.” When the helicopter came back for him, the man had gone under. His selflessness was one reason the story held national attention; his anonymity another.

Still, he could never have imagined such a capacity in himself. Only minutes before his character was tested, he was sitting in the ordinary plane among the ordinary passengers, dutifully listening to the stewardess telling him to fasten his seat belt and saying something about the “no smoking sign.” So our man relaxed with the others, some of whom would owe their lives to him. Perhaps he started to read, or to doze, or to regret some harsh remark made in the office that morning. Then suddenly he knew that the trip would not be ordinary. Like every other person on that flight, he was desperate to live, which makes his final act so stunning.

For at some moment in the water he must have realized that he would not live if he continued to hand over the rope and ring to others. He had to know it, no matter how gradual the effect of the cold. In his judgment he had no choice. When the helicopter took off with what was to be the last survivor, he watched everything in the world move away from him, and he deliberately let it happen.

Yet there was something else about our man that kept our thoughts on him, and which keeps our thoughts on him still. He was there, in the essential, classic circumstance. Man in nature. The man in the water. For its part, nature cared nothing about the five passengers. Our man, on the other hand, cared totally. So the timeless battle commenced in the Potomac. For as long as that man could last, they went at each other, nature and man; the one making no distinctions of good and evil, acting on no principles, offering no lifelines; the other acting wholly on distinctions, principles, and, one supposes, on faith.

The odd thing is that we do not even really believe that the man in the water lost his fight. . .He could not make ice storms, or freeze the water until it froze the blood. But he could hand life over to a stranger. . .The man in the water pitted himself against an implacable, impersonal enemy; he fought it with charity; and he held it to a standoff. He was the best we can do.

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Isa al Masih – Jesus – said (John 15:13): “Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends.”

As we come to the end of this Memorial Day weekend, we think of many who have given their lives for others. I also remember the “man in the water”: dying. . .so others could live.

I think even more of Isa – Jesus. He was the “man in the water” for all of mankind. He gave his life for all of humanity who were “drowning” in their sins. They were hopeless. Helpless. Jesus died, so we could live.

Would you like to talk about this amazing Prophet – Jesus? Please email me at InTheHarvest@gmail.com.

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(Postscript: apparently, the “man in the water” did not know any of the other passengers on the plane personally. His own identity was not even known until some time after the bodies were recovered. The coroner made this discovery: of all the recovered bodies, only one had lungs filled with water. That man was the only person who made it out of the plane but not out of the river. He was Arland Williams Jr., a 46-year-old federal bank examiner.)