MATTOON - The community lost a citizen and gained a hero on a very cold day in January 1982, said Principal Les Edwards.
Edwards and many others paid tribute Saturday to that hero, Arland D. Williams, during the Mattoon School District's dedication ceremony for the new elementary school it has named in his honor.Williams, who had grown up in Mattoon, died Jan. 13, 1982, after the plane he was aboard crashed into the 14th Street Bridge in Washington, D.C., and plunged into the icy water of the Potomac River.When a helicopter arrived at the scene, Williams passed its life line to five other injured passengers so they could be saved. He slipped beneath the water and died before he could be rescued.Before the helicopter's arrival, several bystanders at the scene had formed a rope out of clothing and other items in an effort to rescue the passengers.Roger Olian, who had been driving home from work at the time of the crash, took that rope and started swimming across the frigid water."I had been in cold water before, but not like that. It was like jumping into electricity; it was like a terrible shock to my system," Olian said after the dedication ceremony.He said he made the rescue attempt to give the passengers hope."You cannot hold on without any hope," Olian said, adding the arrival of the helicopter was a relief to everyone.Olian said he has been interviewed many times about the crash but had never before left his Virginia home to discuss it. He said the dedication of the Arland D. Williams Jr. Elementary School was a worthy reason to make such a trip."His legacy will continue on. It does not get any better than that," Olian said.One of the crash's survivors, Joseph Stiley, also attended the dedication.Stiley, who prayed with Williams and the other passengers as they held on to the plane's tail section, said he was eager to honor Williams and meet his family."It brought an emotional response in me that I did not anticipate," Stiley said of visiting Williams' family for the first time.Williams' sister, Jean Fullmer; son, Arland Williams III; and daughter, Leslie Williams, attended the ceremony.His children both said they were impressed by the new school and honored that the district would pay tribute to their father.During the ceremony, school officials unveiled a bronze bust in the likeness of Williams. The bust was then placed in the entryway of the school, where it will be viewed by students and other community members."I hope they understand the meaning of what is behind the bust and what he went through," Arland Williams III said.Construction of the $27.4 million Williams school at 1709 S. Ninth St. and the Riddle Elementary School on Western Avenue was financed through a $16.9 million life safety bond issue and $12.5 million in state grants.Riddle Elementary also was dedicated Saturday. Riddle family members were early Mattoon settlers who were heavily involved in agriculture and education. Sgt. Lawrence Riddle was killed in action one day before the end of World War I.Rob Stroud can be reached at 348-5734.