Stay home or go home: Nightmare decision

Tuesday - 1/21/2014, 2:00am EST

Telling federal workers not to come in because of weather conditions is always a tough call. The official in charge, usually the director of the Office of Personnel Management, will be criticized and second-guessed no matter what. But telling people to stay home is a lot easier than telling them to go home early.

Every early-dismissal debate is haunted by a 32-year-old nightmare: On Jan. 13, 1982, Air Florida Flight 90 took off from National Airport. It had been snowing all day, the temperature was 28 degrees, and ice and snow had built up on the aircraft's wings. It finally took off at 4:01 p.m, and, 30 seconds later it slammed into the traffic-jammed 14th Street Bridge. Seventy-eight people, including four on the ground, were killed.

It could have been worse. It also could have been better.

The bridge was jam packed with commuters, many of them federal workers who had been given a rare early-release earlier in the day. Metro couldn't mobilize enough crews to handle the early rush hours. Bumper-to-bumper traffic made it difficult for ambulances and rescue crews to reach the survivors on the Virginia side of the Potomac.

It was the second worst weather calamity in Washington history. (The worst was during a February blizzard in 1922 when the roof of the old Knickerbocker Theater collapsed, killing 98 people.)

For years after the Air Florida crash, city officials and national politicians debated the wisdom (or folly) of allowing federal workers to leave early, regardless of weather conditions. Some people argue that an early- release is bad because Metro can't get rush hour crews — some of whom work split morning and evening rush hour shifts — to their assignments in time. Others say it makes sense to get people who drive, and car pools, off and running as soon as possible.

One OPM director got into very hot water because she was out of town on political business when D.C. was buried by a snowstorm. Her belated, long- distance shutdown decision took a long time to live down.

But whether it's a stay-home or go-home early decision, it is not an easy call. In fact, it's a life-and-death decision.


NEARLY USELESS FACTOID

Compiled by Jack Moore

For more than 100 years, the front page of The New York Times contained an error: the issue number was off by 500 numbers. In 1898, someone preparing the next day's issue accidentally jumped ahead by 500 — going from issue no. 14,499 to 15,000. The error went uncorrected until 1999, when a news assistant noticed the discrepancy.

(Source: Time)


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