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On the night of Dec. 29, 1972, holiday parties were in full gear. One of them attracted dozens of reporters and editors from the Miami Herald.
With one phone call to the party and other calls to people at home, they were on the story of their lives.
An Eastern Airlines jet had crashed in the Everglades on the way to Miami International Airport.
As we approach another anniversary of the crash, here is a look back at what happened from the archives of the Miami Herald.
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By Sam Jacobs, retired Miami Herald reporter and desk editor: At home late on the Friday night between Christmas and New Year’s in 1972, I had no idea that I was about to help cover one of the major stories in the history of Miami. Then I got a phone call from the Herald city desk. An Eastern Airlines L1011 jetliner had crashed in the Everglades and everyone who could be reached in those days long before cellphones was being called in.
I quickly drove to the office and a few of us helped put together a short story containing the few details we knew for the late edition of Saturday’s paper. I remained in the office all night listening to police radios while other staff members rushed to the scene.
As soon as the sun came up the next morning, a Herald photographer and I boarded a helicopter on Watson Island and flew out to the Everglades. By that time, the survivors had been taken out and all that was left were pieces of the plane.
We found out later what had happened. When Flight 401 from New York was about to land at MIA, the light indicating that the landing gear was down didn’t come on. Not certain whether the problem was with the landing gear or the light, the crew was given permission to make a loop over the Everglades. Somehow, in the confusion, the auto pilot got turned off and, without anyone realizing it, the plane gradually flew into the ground.
A total of 101 people died in the crash, but miraculously 75 survived.
By Arnold Markowitz, retired Herald staff writer, on the 20th anniversary of the crash in 1992: Welcome to sunny Miami,” the pilot announced cheerfully as Eastern Flight 401 passed over the city. “The temperature is in the low 70s, and it’s beautiful out there tonight.”
Give or take a word, the announcement is remembered verbatim by virtually every survivor. There were 75 at the time, 20 years ago tonight. The other 101 people on Eastern Airlines Flight 401 died quite horribly — 98 in the Everglades where the airplane crashed, three later in hospitals.
The plane was a new Lockheed L-1011, pride of the Eastern fleet. It was the first of the new generation of wide-body “jumbo jets” to crash. The death toll at the time was the highest of any one-plane accident in U.S. civil aviation history.
Some survivors recovered and adjusted better than others. Some still feel the pain. That subsides. The memories don’t.
Some would rather not remember. Of five survivors The Herald located this week, three talked freely about Flight 401. Two others did not want to be reminded.
“I’m going to send some flowers to Miami and have them put on the grave of my first wife,” said Ronald Infantino, who lost his bride of 20 days in the crash. Gas gangrene attacked his lungs. He needed a respiratory therapist — who, it turned out, needed him, too. They have two sons and live in Dade City now, near Tampa. Infantino, 47, is an independent insurance broker in San Antonio, a few minutes’ drive from home in Dade City.
“Life’s played funny tricks on me,” said Richard N. Micale, 41, not laughing. “I guess I was always on the edge without knowing it.” In 1972 he was a young carpenter who liked living fast. He had scarcely recovered from a bad auto accident when 401 crashed. He received a $250,000 settlement in a lawsuit, blew it all, got into drug trouble, went back to work and fell off a truck. Now 41, he lives alone in Titusville, on a disability pension.
Angelo Donadeo, whose survival may be the most remarkable of all, says the only thing still bothering him is his back, but not very much. It was broken in the crash and he avoids putting any strain on it — good advice for anyone his age, 67.
Donadeo, an Eastern Airlines technical specialist on L-1011 aircraft, was returning to Miami that night from a trouble- shooting assignment in New York. Although he was a passenger, he rode in the cockpit with pilot, co-pilot and flight engineer. They died. Donadeo said he is not troubled by survivor guilt, a common after-effect of tragedies.
“That wasn’t my first brush with death,” he said. “I was wounded in World War II when the ship I was on was hit by a kamikaze. I had first, second and third-degree burns all over my body. That doesn’t haunt me either . . . I don’t see any reason to worry about what fate has brought. I don’t question what the Lord does.”
Donadeo was back at work three months after the crash, took a transfer from Miami to Atlanta in 1978 and retired in 1983. He and his wife, Donna, live in Christmas, a small town between Orlando and Cape Canaveral. Donadeo is still active in aviation, as state vice commander of the Civil Air Patrol.
Flight 401 flew into the ground on Friday night, Dec. 29, 1972, at 13 seconds past 11:42 p.m. It crashed into the Everglades 18.7 miles northwest of the airport, eight miles north of Tamiami Trail, about 100 yards east of the L-67 canal levee.
Eight minutes earlier, 401 had been descending on its landing approach after an uneventful flight from New York. The wheels were down, locked in position for landing, but the pilot wasn’t sure about the forward wheel under the plane’s nose. A square green light on the control panel was supposed to signal that the wheel was in position. It didn’t light.
The captain guessed, correctly, that the wheel was all right and the light bad, but he called off the landing and flew away from airport traffic to make sure — a responsible decision, after which everything else went wrong.
There were four men in the cockpit, all preoccupied with the light and landing gear. With no one flying the plane or noticing its steady descent at flight speed, it flew itself into the ground. The left wingtip hit first.
Richard Micale: “I remember thinking ‘S—, the plane’s crashing,’ and before I got finished thinking it, it was over. You could hear the cry of death. Funny how people scream for God at a time like that. I probably did too, I’m sure.”
There was an enormous flash of flame as two fuel tanks burst open. Two passing pilots saw it and called the airport.
Richard L. Marquis, a carpet-layer, saw it too. He was out that night on his airboat, gigging frogs with a new friend, Ray Dickens. They headed for the flash. After a few minutes they saw the lights of rescue helicopters, circling, searching, much too far east and south. Marquis waved his headlamp in circles, guiding the pilots to the crash.
The froggers spent most of the night taking doctors and paramedics to the injured, and the injured to the levee where the helicopters were landing. They didn’t keep score, but Marquis knows they saved a lot of people’s lives that night.
One was Micale, who they found alone on a clump of swamp muck, drenched in swamp water and jet fuel. His right arm was badly hurt. With his left, he held onto the boat and walked beside it to the levee. In the hospital, a nine-inch steel rod was inserted into the bone.
With the $250,000 legal settlement, Micale thought he had it made. Wrong.
“Having money ruined my life,” he said. “That’s what really gets me. I was a kid, 21 years old. I was too young for that kind of stuff. I wish I had that kind of money today instead of 20 years ago. I’d be able to do the right thing today.”
It would be hard to make up a plausible story like Ronald Infantino’s — too sad, too joyful.
Ron and Fara Infantino, married for 20 days, were coming home from their honeymoon when Flight 401 crashed. She was killed. He survived, barely, with his right arm nearly severed, his left knee broken and his chest crushed. Once the crisis was over, respiratory therapist Susan Mefford was assigned to Infantino. She had been recovering from a heartbreak of her own for a year and a half.
“I was engaged and my fiance was killed in a drunk-driving accident two months before the wedding,” she said. “I could empathize with what Ron was going through. It was a heart-to- heart bond. We’ve been married going on 18 years now.”
Infantino also won a large legal settlement and lost everything. He was an aviation business student at Miami-Dade Community College then, and used some of his money to start a commuter airline. He invested in real estate, too. He did well for a while — had a big house in the Country Club of Miami and drove a Lincoln.
Then the commuter airline folded. Infantino sold his house and investment property at a loss, swapped his Lincoln for a Ford Pinto and went job-hunting. He found one, selling $500 vacuum cleaners in Tampa. He sold 13 in a month.
His last prospect, Teresa Trapnell, listened to his pitch, didn’t buy, but told her insurance executive husband, Bob, what a swell salesman she had met that day. Bob called Infantino, who loves to tell the story:
“He was a regional coordinator with AFLAC, American Family Life Assurance Co., and that’s when I started —- 16 years ago, and I’ve been with them ever since. Once in a while I ask Teresa, ‘How come you never bought a vacuum cleaner if you thought I was so good?’“
By Luisa Yanez, on the 35th anniversary of the crash in 2007: Drenched in jet fuel and smothered by debris, 23-year-old flight attendant Beverly Raposa struggled to free herself from a jump seat and blinked her eyes to adjust to the pitch blackness surrounding her.
She had survived a jumbo jet’s violent crash into one of Florida’s most mysterious places: the Everglades. It was just before midnight on Dec. 29, 1972.
Remarkably, Raposa could hear the cries of other survivors. Crawling through the darkness and muck, she found fellow flight attendant Mercy Ruiz, 29, of Hialeah, who had been hurled from the plane. Bleeding from her forehead, she was still strapped to her seat.
“What happened, Beverly?” Ruiz asked, confused.
“Honey, we crashed.”
“No, we didn’t crash, Beverly. It’s a bad dream. We’re gonna wake up.”
“No, Mercy, we’re down.”
Raposa would spend the next grueling hours fighting for those who survived the crash of Eastern Airlines Flight 401.
On Monday, Raposa and the other 74 “miracle survivors” will remember the 101 who died by observing the 35th anniversary of one of South Florida’s worst airline crashes.
This is their story.
The tragic night began routinely enough. Bound for Miami, Flight 401 took off from New York’s JFK airport at 9:20 p.m. In the cockpit: Capt. Robert Loft, 55; First Officer Albert Stockstill, 39, and Second Officer Donald Repo, 51, all of Miami-Dade.
The Lockheed L-1011 had 163 passengers and 13 crew members, with 50 empty seats. The flight had a mix of passengers leading ordinary lives: Marc Leshay, 21, a University of Miami student headed back to class after the holidays. Ethel Jackson, 64, a housekeeper from Liberty City who brought her white uniform in a carry-on bag. Rose Kashman, 57, of New York, wearing a mink coat. And Fara Infantino, a secretary married just 20 days earlier.
All would be dead within three hours.
Also aboard: Jan Minguzzi Coviello and her 4½-year-old son, Nicky. They took their seats in Row 35.
In Row 16 were Gustavo and Xiomara Casado of South Miami, who lived in New York. They were flying in to show relatives their new baby, 2-month-old Christina. The infant, in a knitted pink dress, slept in her mother’s arms.
The flight was uneventful — until it approached MIA.
Loft, an Eastern pilot since 1951, ordered the landing gear lowered. But an indicator light failed to confirm it was down and locked. The cockpit radioed the tower. “It looks like we’re gonna have to circle; we don’t have a light on yet.”
The jet circled west over the Everglades at 2,000 feet as the cockpit crew spent the final four minutes fixated on whether the problem was a burned-out $12 bulb or a faulty landing gear.
It’s unclear, but Loft or Stockstill accidentally bumped the automatic pilot throttle, switching it off. The jet began descending. No one in the cockpit noticed.
As the plane circled, Ruiz, seated in the back of the plane, walked over to flight attendant Pat Ghyssels and wondered why the aircraft was flying away from city lights. “She said to me: ‘Oh, Mercy, stop complaining. It’s the holidays. If we’re a little late, it’s overtime,” Ruiz recalls.
Ghyssels, 25, a graduate of Miami Norland Senior High, would be dead within minutes.
By 11:41 p.m., Capt. Loft, satisfied the bulb was the culprit, advised the tower they were coming in, returning his attention to flying the plane. But it was too late.
“We did something to the altitude,” First Officer Stockstill warned.
“Hey, what’s happening here?” Loft said, frantically pulling up while banking to the left in a futile attempt to rescue Flight 401.
At 11:42 p.m., the jumbo jet disappeared from the air traffic controller’s radar screen.
Moments before the crash, Coviello had been trying to stir Nicky awake.
Then 25 and living in Brooklyn, Coviello was coming to Hialeah to help her mother recuperate from surgery.
She had set Nicky down to sleep in a row of two seats by the window; she settled across the aisle.
Suddenly, there was a jarring pull to the left, as the wing sliced into the ground. The lights went out and a ball of fire raced down the cabin.
The jet went into a horizontal cartwheel, slamming down and breaking into several large sections, with each spinning across the slick terrain 18 miles west of MIA.
Passengers later would compare it to being caught in the swirl of a tornado or a violent roller coaster.
Then silence — everything stopped moving.
“I was still strapped to my seat, but I was in the open air, in the middle of nowhere. There was no plane around us,” Coviello said. Nicky was gone.
Frantically, Coviello began to feel her way in the darkness, searching for her son in the muck and razor-sharp sawgrass.
She touched a bundle on the ground. She heard crying. It wasn’t her son, but a baby boy whose parents, it was later learned, were killed. Coviello took the baby in her arms.
Coviello then heard Beverly Raposa’s voice.
“If you can hear me, come toward my voice. I’m a stewardess.” And then a warning: “Don’t anyone light a match!” Raposa still feared a fireball.
Coviello found Raposa and gave her the orphaned baby.
Nearby, the Casados were on a search of their own. On impact, their infant daughter had flown out of her mother’s arms. The were in knee-deep water, enough to drown a baby.
“I don’t know if I was in a mother’s instinct, but I made my way right to her.”
In the middle of the mayhem, Xiomara Casado miraculously found her 2-month-old daughter. Little Christina was floating face up, cradled by luggage and debris, protected by a cage of mangled metal.
“She had a tiny scratch on her chest and one on her forehead that I did when I pulled her up. That was it,” Xiomara Casado said.
Coviello didn’t find Nicky that night. Rescuers recovered his body in the light of the following day. He died on impact and had never heard his mother’s cries.
She still holds on to her son’s last moments of life.
“My left hand was on his body and I was saying: ‘Honey, get up, Poppa — that’s what he called my father — is waiting for us at the airport,” Coviello said. “To this day, I can still feel my hand on him.”
She has a cherished memory, too: a photograph taken just weeks before the crash of a smiling Nicky sitting on Santa’s lap.
Robert “Bud” Marquis was gigging frogs in his airboat with an out-of-town friend on the serene Everglades when he heard the roar overhead of a large commercial plane.
Marquis looked up and saw an explosion. “It was like a mushroom cloud, but it died quickly,” he said. “I told my friend ‘Keep an eye on that spot,’ and we headed out there.”
Some 15 minutes later, the two arrived at a surreal scene.
“There were people screaming for help everywhere, dead bodies floating face down, some naked with just shoes on. I tried to help as many as I could,” said Marquis, now 78, who still lives in Homestead.
Said Raposa: “When we heard his airboat, we knew we had been found.”
But Marquis could do little. By 12:30 a.m., no one had been airlifted. The remote crash site proved problematic.
Official rescuers soon followed. Marquis, a former wildlife officer familiar with the hidden watery pathways, directed them to the crash site and nearby Levee 67 — a narrow lane of firm ground in the middle of the swamp, reacheable only by airboat or chopper.
Coast Guard Petty Officer Don Schneck arrived on a chopper out of Opa-locka Airport and jumped on Marquis’s airboat for a ride into the belly of the crash.
Schneck, now 59, of Rogers, Ark., reached the front of the jet first and found two flight attendants, Adrianne Hamilton, 27, and Sue Tebbs, 28. Both were injured and trapped.
Schneck could hear voices coming from the cockpit. He found Capt. Loft across the control panel, in bad shape.
“He looked me straight in the eye and said, ‘I’m going to die.’ I put both my hands on his forearms and said: ‘You’re gonna make it.”
The captain died before rescuers arrived. Other crew members killed: First Officer Stockstill; flight engineer Repo and flight attendants Ghyssels and Stephanie Stanich, 27.
In the remote section of the crash near the tail, Raposa wiped away the muck on her wings pin — so she could be identified — and continued assisting the injured.
“I felt that these poor people were still my responsibility,” said Raposa, who credits her faith and Portuguese background for her spunk.
She gathered up airline seats and set up a sitting section in the middle of nowhere.
“No one knows where we are?” an anxious passenger asked Raposa. “They know exactly where we are. They’ll be here soon.”
To calm everyone, Raposa led survivors in renditions of Jingle Bells, Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer and Frosty the Snowman.
It would be 3:30 a.m. — nearly four hours after the crash — when her group, the last out, would be rescued.
In the end, the crash was blamed on the crew’s preoccupation with the landing gear light.
“What you had was a situation where no one was flying the plane,” said Eric Olson, a Barry University administrator and former air traffic controller who has studied the Eastern crash. Olson owns a piece of the crash: a passenger window.
On Monday, Raposa, Ruiz, the Casados and others will attend a ceremony honoring Marquis, the frog hunter. The 2 p.m. ceremony at the Miami-Dade Firefighters’ Memorial Bldg., 8000 NW 21st St., is open to the public. There’s also interest in creating a memorial marker to honor those who died in the crash.
For survivors, the crash left scars — physical and mental. “I still wonder why we lived and all those other people died,” said Coviello, who eventually moved to South Florida and now lives in Pembroke Pines. She never flies.
“To keep going, I had to have more children.” She had two more sons — Mark and Tony — and two grandsons. One is named Nicky.
“We toast to the day our second life began,” Christina Casado-Acorn said of her family’s ritual every Dec. 29. Raposa, 60, hailed for her valor after the crash, eventually resigned from Eastern and worked in the travel agency industry. She is now vice president of Generations Gold, a financial marketing firm in West Palm Beach. Crash-induced back pains don’t slow her down.
“I still love to fly; I get on planes and fall asleep like a baby,” jokes Raposa, of Sunrise. Ruiz, 63, of West Miami-Dade, also carries aches and pains.
She returned to flying until Eastern folded in 1991, then put in 11 years with United before retiring. Today, she still has the small, cream-colored suitcase she carried the night of the crash. Inside was a treasure: her camera with shots of the crew taken that day.
“I’ve tried to throw [the suitcase] away many times, but something always holds me back. It’s like it’s a charm,” she said. “It survived that night, just like me.”