Forty Years Later, a Daughter Recalls Her Father's Heroism

January 20, 2022

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Leslie Williams remembers her meeting with Ronald Reagan mostly as a blur. "We were hustled in and out and I don't remember much about what was said," Leslie admitted. But she distinctly remembers being impressed by President Reagan's height. "He was taller than I anticipated. Really tall," she said.

That was in 1983. Leslie was 17 years old, and she, her grandparents, her 16-year-old brother, and other family members were in the Oval Office to accept the United States Coast Guard's Gold Lifesaving Medal on behalf of her father, Arland Williams Jr., who had perished after helping to rescue the only other survivors of the crash of Air Florida Flight 90.

Forty years have passed since January 13, 1982, when the plane crashed during a snowstorm into the 14th Street Bridge in Washington, DC, then plunged into the icy waters of the Potomac. Leslie's father was one of only six people—five passengers and a flight attendant—who survived the crash. They all clung to the plane's tail section, which had broken off and was the only part of the plane visible above the surface of the water. Because of injuries and the frigid conditions, the survivors could only hang on and wait for help.

photo portrait of Leslie Williams
Leslie in front of the mural honoring her father. Photo by David Fine

When the US Park Police helicopter arrived, it lowered its line to rescue one survivor at a time. Each time the helicopter lowered its line, Arland would hand it off to someone else.

This excerpt from the citation read at the June 1983 award ceremony by Vice Admiral Benedict L. Stabile, vice commandant of the Coast Guard, best describes Arland's heroic actions:

By not grabbing the rescue line and occupying valuable time in what would probably have been a futile attempt to pull himself free, other survivors, who might have perished if they had been in the frigid waters much longer, were saved. Mr. Williams sacrificed his own life so that others may live. Mr. Williams' unselfish actions and valiant service reflect the highest credit upon himself and were in keeping with the highest traditions of humanitarian service.

By the time the helicopter came back for the sixth survivor, the tail section had slipped further into the water, drowning Arland.

Unknown hero's story broadcast around the world

Atlanta was snowed in that day, and schools were closed. Leslie and her brother were stuck at home. Like so many others around the world, Leslie was glued to the television watching the events in Washington unfold. She, too, watched the man many broadcasters were calling the "unknown hero" as he continued to pass the rescue line to others. It wouldn't be confirmed that the man was her father until a year-and-a-half later, after the conclusion of a lengthy investigation. She and her family didn't even know Arland was on that flight until the day after the accident, when her grandmother called.

"We thought he was in Tampa, where he was supervising a bank," said Leslie. Arland, an Atlanta Fed bank examiner, was on his way back to Tampa after discussing the bank's problems with staff at the Federal Reserve Board of Governors in Washington, DC.

Leslie and her brother were devastated by the news. "I have so many questions to ask him now! At 17, I just didn't know the questions to ask," she said.

Leslie remembers her father as fun loving and adventurous. "We used to go camping in the Smoky Mountains. We'd rent a motor home and drive up," she said, then added, "I guess that's not really camping—it was ‘glamping.' " The family rode bikes, hiked, cooked out.

From cataloguing to coding

Along with camping in the Smokies, some of Leslie's best memories of her father were of going to the Bank when it was on Marietta Street. "Dad always talked about his work. He loved it. He would take us with him after hours and on weekends, whenever he had to catch up on something." she said.

Leslie's connection to the Atlanta Fed continued long after Arland's death. His colleagues in the Supervision and Regulation Department (now the Supervision, Regulation, and Credit Division, or SRC) kept in touch, occasionally taking her out to lunch. Colleagues would tell Leslie stories about Arland and his sense of humor. "Apparently he was a big practical joker."

  • Leslie's grandmother accepts the Coast Guard's Gold Lifesaving Medal from President Reagan, June 1983, on behalf of her son. Left to right: Arland D. Williams III (Trey), Leslie's brother; Virginia Williams, Leslie's grandmother; President Ronald Reagan; Arland D. Williams Sr., Leslie's grandfather; Leslie; Leslie's paternal aunt, Jean Fullmer

    Leslie's grandmother accepts the Coast Guard's Gold Lifesaving Medal from President Reagan, June 1983, on behalf of her son. Left to right: Arland D. Williams III (Trey), Leslie's brother; Virginia Williams, Leslie's grandmother; President Ronald Reagan; Arland D. Williams Sr., Leslie's grandfather; Leslie; Leslie's paternal aunt, Jean Fullmer

  • President Reagan shakes Leslie's hand after the award ceremony.

    President Reagan shakes Leslie's hand after the award ceremony.

  • Arland D. Williams Jr.

    Arland D. Williams Jr.

  • Leslie, age 14, and Arland on one of their camping trips to the Smokies

    Leslie, age 14, and Arland on one of their camping trips to the Smokies

  • Arland; Leslie, age 16; and her brother Trey, age 14

    Arland; Leslie, age 16; and her brother Trey, age 14

  • Leslie, age 13, and her father on a camping trip in the Smokies

    Leslie, age 13, and her father on a camping trip in the Smokies

Leslie eventually followed her father into a job at the Atlanta Fed. When she graduated in 1989 from the University of Alabama with a master's degree in library service, she took a job working for the Department of the Army's library system at Fort Monroe, Virginia. She then worked at the National Archives in Washington, DC, in 1994. But during the winter holidays of 1994, she learned of an opening at the Atlanta Fed. Her early positive experiences and the continued connection it gave her to her father led her to jump at the chance, she said.

On January 17, 1995, Leslie began her job at the Atlanta Fed—not as a bank examiner, like her father, but as a cataloguer in the Atlanta Fed's library. Not long after, she was assigned the task of building the Bank's website. "I had no idea what I was doing," she laughed. "I had to buy a bunch of books." Leslie persevered and created a successful website, cementing her reputation for persistence and dedication.

Working closely with her on the website was Carole Starkey, a graphic designer at the time. Carole, who retired in early 2020 from her job as director of external communications, said of Leslie: "I think she is the most dedicated employee I could ever imagine. She has a tremendous work ethic." Carole, who was Leslie's manager for more than 20 years, had heard the story of Arland Williams but did not know Leslie was his daughter until they traveled together on a work assignment. "As I think back, it was kind of eerie," Carole said. "We were on a flight to Washington, DC, and she started telling me about it. It was so poignant, as we were landing, to think of what happened to him, and here we were landing in that same airport."

More than a quarter-century later, Leslie continues to work on the Atlanta Fed website. The average person might wonder how someone with a library degree ended up working on websites, but as Leslie explains it, the transition was quite smooth. "My work in library science helps with the understanding of the architecture and management of the content, how to organize it," she said.

Recognizing a hero

Many people and institutions have commemorated Arland's heroic deeds. Soon after the crash, the Atlanta Fed put up some plaques telling the story of the crash and describing Arland's heroism.

In August 2003, an elementary school in Mattoon, Illinois—Arland's hometown—was dedicated to his memory. Leslie and Trey, her brother, attended as guests of honor. Also attending the ceremony were Joseph Stiley, one of the crash survivors, and Roger Olian, one of two bystanders who had jumped into the Potomac to try to save the survivors. (Roger Olian and Lenny Skutnik, the other bystander, received the Coast Guard's Gold Lifesaving Medal along with Arland.) Arland D. Williams Elementary School just observed the 40th anniversary of the crash and retold Arland's story to the school's 700-plus students and their families.

Other observances: Arland's Mattoon high school friends created a college scholarship in his name that goes to a student who enters the banking or accounting field. In June 1982, Arland was awarded the Algernon Sydney Sullivan Award by The Citadel. The Citadel, where Arland graduated in 1957, has a portrait of Arland on a wall in the Department of Psychology. In addition, Arland's graduating class endowed the Arland D. Williams Professorship in Heroism, a professorship that is awarded every three years to a professor in this department.

When the Atlanta Fed headquarters moved to its current location in Midtown Atlanta, the original plaques got displaced to three different locations, including the Atlanta Fed headquarters and the Miami Branch.

The memorials held meaning not only for Arland's colleagues and his daughter but also for some special visitors. Mike Chriszt, vice president in the Atlanta Fed's Public Affairs Department, tells a story of getting a request in the early 2000s from some visiting Japanese economists to view the Arland Williams Jr. memorial. "Those economists stood there for a good 10 minutes. I could just see the emotions play across their faces," Mike said.

As time went on and more of Arland's colleagues retired, the memory of that day in 1982 began to fade. "It used to be that when you'd say ‘Air Florida crash in Washington,' people knew what you were talking about. Now they don't know. They weren't alive then," Leslie said. In 2018, SRC created a memorial and named a conference room after him to keep his memory alive. "I've been to that conference room for a meeting. It was odd walking into the meeting and seeing my father's name on it," Leslie said. Outside the conference room are newer plaques telling the story of the crash and describing Arland's heroism.

Arland's tale of selflessness continues to resonate with Bank employees, including those who never worked with him. "Arland's selfless heroism while on a Bank assignment is truly worthy of lifting up as an example of the ideals we strive for," said Raphael Bostic, Atlanta Fed president. "Though I never met him, his acts that day inspire me, and I trust they will inspire many others in the years to come."

"It is never too late to remember people"

As the 40th anniversary approached, a team headed by Atlanta Fed assistant vice president Donna Fay began working on a large mural telling Arland's story. "It is never too late to remember people. What better time to re-remember Arland than now?" Donna, who used to work as a bank examiner in SRC, had also watched the rescue unfold live on television. "My memories of watching that event remain clear," she noted. "I was living in Tampa, Florida, and the flight destination was Tampa, and it was a big deal as there were a number of residents and people with connections to Tampa who lost their lives on that flight." Donna joined the Atlanta Fed in 1998. In 2008, she was in a conference room at the Miami Branch. She noticed a plaque on the wall with Arland's name on it, leading her to connect the dots. "I knew exactly who he was but did not know until then that he'd worked for the Atlanta Fed."

Donna and her team's resulting mural was installed on a wall visible to employees and guests as they enter and exit the building. The Bank will conduct a ceremony observing the anniversary when all staff return to the office. Leslie will be a guest of honor.

"When I go to the Bank every day, I'll walk down the hall, look at the mural, and smile seeing the image of my dad and know that he is still loved by his coworkers today," Leslie noted. "I like thinking that someone who is too young to remember the event may stop and take a few minutes to read about his actions and think about themselves, ‘How can I help someone near me?'"

photo of Nancy Condon
Nancy Condon

Atlanta Fed's editorial director


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