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Remarks on Awarding the United States Coast Guard's Gold Lifesaving Medal Posthumously to Arland D. Williams, Jr.

June 06, 1983

The President. We're here to honor Arland Williams, Jr. Virtually everyone in the United States knows of his heroism and knows of his deed, but very few, if any, knew his name. Those of us who do know of his bravery have remembered him only as the "unknown hero." And that was in the terrible tragedy that took place down here on January 13th, 1982, when the plane crashed into the bridge and into the icecovered Potomac. And for a long, long time we have known of the one man who repeatedly handed the line from the helicopter to others that he thought were in a worse situation than he was, saving five people in all. And then when the helicopter went back for him, he was no longer there.

And now an investigation by the Coast Guard and a thorough study has made it known that Arland Williams, Jr., was the hero who gave his life that others might live. And we have here his family—Arland and Virginia Williams; his son and daughter, Arland and Leslie, and the Vice Commander of the Coast Guard. And we are awarding to him this medal—some 607, I think it is, have been given in the 100 years' history of the medal. There is a gold and silver medal. Two gold were given to other heroes in this same tragedy, two silver, and now this one.

And Time magazine said, "If the man in the water gave a lifeline to the people gasping for survival, he was likewise giving a lifeline to those who observed him." And I think that is true, because all of us had to stand a little taller witnessing this heroic deed and knowing now the man who gets the credit.

And, now would you read the citation?

Vice Adm. Stabile. Mr. President, I'd be happy to.

"The Secretary of Transportation takes pleasure in presenting the Gold Lifesaving Medal posthumously to Arland D. Williams, Jr., for acts as set forth in the following citation:

"For extreme and heroic daring on the afternoon of 13 January 1982, following the crash of an airplane in the Potomac River in Washington, D.C. Mr. Williams was a passenger on an Air Florida 737 that crashed in a blinding snowstorm into the 14th Street Bridge that crosses the Potomac River and connects Washington, D.C. and Northern Virginia. After hitting the bridge, the plane plunged into the frozen waters of the Potomac River. Mr. Williams was seated in the rear section of the plane which was partially above the water. When a U.S. Park Police helicopter arrived to commence rescue efforts, Mr. Williams, although injured, quickly realized that he was trapped in his seat by a jammed seat belt. As the helicopter lowered a line to the survivors for towing them to shore, Mr. Williams, acknowledging the fact that he was trapped, refused to grab the line and passed it on to the other injured persons. The helicopter crew rescued five other survivors and then returned to Mr. Williams. He could not be found as he had sunk beneath the icy waters. 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."

Signed, Elizabeth Hanford Dole, Secretary of Transportation.

The President. Mrs. Williams, I hope that you'll receive this medal for your son. And to his son and daughter, let me just say you can live with tremendous pride in your father.

Note: The President spoke at 12 noon at the presentation ceremony in the Oval Office at the White House. Mrs. Virginia Williams, mother of Arland Williams, Jr., accepted the medal on her son's behalf. Other participants in the ceremony included the recipient's father, Arland, his children, Arland and Leslie Ann, and his sister, Jean Fullmer, Vice Adm. Benedict L. Stabile, Vice Commandant of the U.S. Coast Guard, Comdr. D.C. Addison, crash investigator, and Senator Charles H. Percy and Representative Daniel B. Crane of Illinois.

Gold and Silver Lifesaving Medals are awarded for personal heroic daring in rescuing or attempting to rescue others from drowning, shipwrecks, or other perils of the water. Only 607 gold medals have been awarded since 1874.

Gold Lifesaving Medals also were presented to Martin L. (Lenny) Skutnik III and Roger W. Olian, and silver medals to Melvin E. Windsor and Donald W. Usher for their heroism in the Air Florida incident.

Ronald Reagan, Remarks on Awarding the United States Coast Guard's Gold Lifesaving Medal Posthumously to Arland D. Williams, Jr. Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project

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