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The Man in the Water

Grade 7 | Analysis | Text-Dependent 

Source Lexile®: 850L-930L

Learning Standards



Writing Situation: After the crash of Air Florida Flight 90 in 1982, Roger Rosenblatt, an award-winning journalist, wrote an article for Time Magazine about a man who risked his life in order to save his fellow passengers from the icy waters of the Potomac River. In the end, this man lost his own life in the process of saving others.


Writing Direction: After reading "The Man in the Water," select one important theme to write an essay about. Create a theme statement which expresses the author's main point, lesson, or message in the article. Your theme statement will be the thesis of your essay-the claim you make about the writer's message or main idea.


As you develop your essay, pay special attention to:

  • Rosenblatt's description of the man in the water's actions after the plane crash

  • The language Rosenblatt uses to describe nature and the relationship between the man in the water and nature (including similes, metaphors, symbols, personification, or other figurative language)

  • Rosenblatt's response to the fact that the man in the water lost his life in the process of saving others


In your conclusion:

  • Discuss Rosenblatt's purpose in writing "The Man in the Water."

  • Revisit the message he wants his readers to take away from reading his article and explain why it is especially significant.


Remember: There is no one theme and therefore no "right" answer to this prompt. What is important is to support your ideas with evidence from the text. Proofread your paper carefully to be sure that it follows the conventions of written English.




Source 1

"The Man in the Water" By Roger Rosenblatt


On January 13, 1982, Air Florida Flight 90 plowed into the 14th Street Bridge in Washington, D.C., and plunged into the frigid waters of the Potomac River. The plane hit seven vehicles, killing four motorists and 74 passengers. Only six people survived. This is one passenger's story.


As disasters go, this one was terrible but not unique, certainly not among the worst on the roster of U.S. air crashes. There was the unusual element of the bridge, of course, and the fact that the plane clipped it at a moment of high traffic, one routine thus intersecting another and disrupting both. Then, too, there was the location of the event. Washington, the city of form and regulations, turned chaotic, deregulated, by a blast of real winter and a single slap of metal on metal. The jets from Washington National Airport that normally swoop around the presidential monuments like famished gulls are, for the moment, emblemized by the one that fell; so there is that detail. And there was the aesthetic clash as well - blue-and-green Air  Florida, the name a flying garden, sunk down among gray chunks in a black river. All that was worth noticing, to be sure. Still, there was nothing very special in any of it, except death, which, while always special, does not necessarily bring millions to tears or to attention. Why, then, the shock here?


Perhaps because the nation saw in this disaster something more than a mechanical failure. Perhaps because people saw in it no failure at all, but rather something successful about their makeup. Here, after all, were two forms of nature in collision: the elements and human character. Last Wednesday, the elements, indifferent as ever, brought down Flight 90. And on that same afternoon, human nature - groping and flailing in mysteries of its own - rose to the occasion.


Of the four acknowledged heroes of the event, three are able to account for their behavior. Donald Usher and Eugene Windsor, a park police helicopter team, risked their lives every time they dipped the skids into the water to pick off survivors. On television, side by side in bright blue jumpsuits, they described their courage as all in the line of duty. Lenny Skutnik, a 28-yearold employee of the Congressional Budget Office, said: "It's something I never thought I would do" - referring to his jumping in the water to drag an injured woman to shore. Skutnik added that "somebody had to go in the water," delivering every hero's line that is no less admirable for its repetitions. In fact, nobody had to go into the water. That somebody actually did so is part of the reason this particular tragedy sticks in the mind.


But 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 floatation 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. The fact that he went unidentified invested him with a universal character. For a while he was Everyman, and thus proof (as if one needed it) that no man is ordinary.


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 the man that kept 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.


Since it was he who lost the fight, we ought to come again to the conclusion that people are powerless in the world. In reality, we believe the reverse, and it takes the act of the man in the water to remind us of our true feelings in this matter. It is not to say that everyone would have acted as he did or as Usher, Windsor, and Skutnik. Yet whatever moved these men to challenge death on behalf of their fellows is not peculiar to them. Everyone feels the possibility in himself. That is the abiding wonder of the story. That is why we would not let go of it. 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.


The odd thing is that we do not even really believe that the man in the water lost his fight. "Everything in Nature contains all the powers of Nature," said Emerson. Exactly. So the man in the water had his own natural powers. He could not make ice storms or freeze the water until it froze the blood. But he could hand life over to a stranger, and that is a power of nature too. 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.




Source 2



  • Chaotic adj. confused
  • Deregulated v. without rules or restrictions
  • Famished v. starving
  • Emblemized v. represented; symbolized
  • Flailing v. waving vigorously
  • Aesthetic n. beautiful; artistic looking
  • Collision n. the act of two things crashing together
  • Anonymity n. having no name
  • Commenced v. began
  • Abiding v. lasting
  • Implacable adj. impossible to calm or satisfy; relentless
  • Charity n. good will toward or love of humanity




Source 3

"What is a Theme?" Adapted from Great Source Reader's Handbook


The theme of a written text is the writer's message or main idea. The theme is what the writer wants you to remember most. Most stories, novels and plays, and sometimes poems have more than just one theme. A character might say something about life that is clearly important. For example, in E.B. White's Charlotte's Web, Wilbur says at the end, "Friendship is one of the most satisfying things in the world." That's a statement of one of the book's themes. But, often, you have to be a bit of a detective to discover the theme or themes. The author leaves clues, but it is up to you to put them together and decide what the important message or lesson is.


The article you just read was nonfiction. Although some nonfiction texts are written solely to present facts and information, others are also intended to present the writer's message and influence readers' ideas about people, places, or events. Therefore, nonfiction texts can also contain themes.








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