There was not a great deal of action in the cockpit for Donadeo to observe, however. Once the plane was out of the New York area, the weather was good and Stockstill put the aircraft on auto pilot and dimmed the cockpit lights to provide better visibility of the night sky outside. For almost the entire trip, a DC-10 could be seen ahead of the L-1011. The cockpit radio speakers were turned on, so even without headphones it was possible to listen to the conversations between Loft and the air controllers as well as conversations between the different planes in the sky.
Just ahead of Flight 401, National Airlines Flight 607 was experiencing landing gear difficulties as it approached Miami International Airport. At 11:19p.m., the north arrival radar operator in Miami's air traffic control tower gave Flight 607 its final approach course. The National pilot responded, "Okay, that's maintain ten; you might, uh, be advised we're gonna need an extended pattern now. We're gonna have to crank down our gear." One minute later, National 607, with a light indicating a hydraulic leak, radioed the controller, "You might as well run out the fire trucks." The men on Flight 401's flight deck listened to their fellow pilot onboard the National plane as it dealt with its troubled gear. With the emergency equipment rolling onto the field near runway Nine Right in anticipation of National 607, Eastern 401 was assigned the other parallel runway, Nine Left.
At 11:32 p.m., the north approach controller gave Flight 401 instructions to change radio frequencies and initiate contact with the local controller. Signing off, the controller and Loft exchanged the customary parting pleasantry. "Eastern 401, left heading 1003 from the marker, cleared to ILS Nine Left approach, tower 118.3, good morning."
Loft replied, "118.3, Eastern 401, so long."
On frequency 118.3, loft called to the local controller. "Miami tower, Eastern 401, just turned on final." Loft looked at Stockstill and instructed him to lower the gear: "Go ahead and throw 'em out." After a moment, Loft repeats his message. "Miami tower, do you read Eastern 401? Just turned on final." This time the controller responded.
"Eastern 401 heavy, continue approach to runway Nine Left."
Loft acknowledges the controller, and then began a series of practiced, terse, checklist exchanges with the rest of the flight crew:
Repo: Continuous ignition. No smoke
Loft: Coming on
Repo: Brake system
Loft: Up, off
Repo: Hydraulic panels checked
Repo: Engine crossbleeds are open. Gear down.
From his jump seat behind the captain, Donadeo looked out a side window and noticed that they were making a west to east approach. The plane was crossing the Palmetto Expressway, a major highway just west of the airport. It was then that Donadeo became aware of a problem.
Stockstill was landing the plane. "No nose gear," he said. The flap position warning horn honked. From this point on, the cockpit would periodically be filled with the din of various warning signals, as well as blaring voices from the radio speakers. "I gotta ....I gotta raise it back up," Loft said. "Goddamn it. Now I'm gonna try it down one more time."
"All right," said Stockstill, but his voice was almost covered by the much louder sound of an altitude alert horn. For one grating moment both horns sounded; then the flap position warning horn became silent. "Well," Stockstill said in a calm voice. "Want to tell 'em we'll take it around and circle around and fart around?"
At 11:34 p.m. Loft spoke into the radio. "Well, ah, tower, this is Eastern 401, it looks like we're gonna have to circle; we don't have a light on our nose gear yet." Loft referred to a one-inch square light on the lower right side of the center instrument panel that indicates that the nose gear is down and locked in position for landing. The light should have been on at this point, but remained unlit. From the radio speaker the local controller said,
"Eastern 401 heavy, Roger, pull up, climb straight ahead to two thousand. Go back to approach control, 128.6."
The plane had dropped below one thousand feet, homing in on runway Nine Left. "Twenty-two degrees, gear up," Stockstill said, reaching for the landing gear handle. However, Loft suggested, "Put the power on first, Bert. Thataboy. Leave the goddamn gear down until we find out what we got." Donadeo observed that although Stockstill was flying the plane, Loft applied power to the throttles at this point. The plane began to pull out of its descent.
From behind Loft and Stockstill, Repo offered, "Do you want me to check the lights or not?" Loft told him, "Yeah. Check it." Repo's test failed to illuminate the small, square light. Stockstill thought that the light assembly might not be properly seated in the fixture. "Uh, Bob, it might be the light," he said. "Could you jiggle the light?"
"Okay, going up to two thousand," Loft said into the radio as the jet began to climb.
Forty seconds later, Stockstill commented, "We're up to two thousand. You want me to fly it, Bob?"
Loft came back with a question. "What frequency did he want us on?"
"128.6," answered Stockstill.
""I'll talk to 'em," Loft said. He would continue to operate the radio and Stockstill would fly the plane.
Now Repo, standing behind Stockstill looking over his shoulder asked "It's right above that, ah, red one, is it not?"
Loft looked over. "Yeah. Oh, I can't get it from here." The troublesome light light was on the copilot's side of the center panel, closer to Stockstill. But Stockstill was flying the plane, so Repo would be the next to try and remove it. "I can't make it pull out either, " he said.
At 11:35 p.m., Loft radioed the approach controller to report their position. "Alright, ahh, Approach Control, Eastern 401, we're right over the airport here and climbing to two thousand feet. in fact, we've just reached two thousand feet and we've got to get a green light on our nose gear." The controller called back to give Flight 401 new heading information, "Eastern 401, roger. Turn left heading three six zero and maintain two thousand, vectors to 9 Left final."
Loft acknowledged the new heading: turn left and maintain two thousand feet. The plane began to make a U-turn, swinging first to the north and slowly around until it was pointed away from the airport and out toward the Everglades. "Put the son of a bitch on autopilot here," Loft said. Stockstill complied. "See if you can get the light out," Loft told him.
Back in the passenger cabin, some people noticed that they were turning. 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 the city lights. Pat was flipping through the pages of Family Circle magazine, glancing at an article called How To Beat The Holiday Blues. She looked up at Mercy and said: 'Oh, Mercy, stop complaining. It's the holidays. If we're a little late, it's overtime,' Ruiz recalls.
Stockstill finally managed to extract the light fixture from the instrument panel. Inside the plastic cube were two small light bulbs, called peanut bulbs. Donadeo glanced across the flight deck and saw Repo examining the fixture. He did not see the flight engineer remove the old bulbs and insert new ones,. even though there were spare bulbs on board. Then the fixture was replaced into the socket - sideways.
"You got it in there sideways then," Loft said. "Naw, I don't think it will fit. You gotta turn it one quarter to the left."see photo to left, Jim Birmingham of the Miami Herald). Inside the hell hole was an optical sighting device which could be used to view the landing gear itself.
Meanwhile, Stockstill was still trying to remove the jammed light assembly. "You got a handkerchief or something so I can get a little better grip on this, anything I can do it with? It hangs out and sticks." He turned to Loft as Repo was entering the hell hole. "This wont come out, Bob. If I had a pair of pliers, I could cushion it with that Kleenex."
Repo paused on his way down. "I can give you pliers, but if you force it, you'll break it, just believe me."
"Yeah," Stockstill said. "I'll cushion it with some Kleenex."
Loft was loosing patience with the effort to remove the jammed light. Again he ordered Repo into the avionics bay below. "To hell with this," he said, "to hell with this! Go down and see if it's lined up...that's all we care. Fuck around with that goddamned twenty-cent piece of light equipment we got on this bastard!"
The cockpit voice recorder picked up the sound of laughter. It is clear that the crew viewed the malfunction not so much as an emergency as an annoyance. At 11:38 p.m., Loft calmly spoke into the microphone to the controller. "Eastern 401 'll go ah, out west just a little further if we can here and, ah, see if we can get this light to come on here."
The controller responded, "Alright, ah, we got you headed westbound there now, Eastern 401."
It was now 11:38. At the airport, national Flight 607, the plane which had experienced landing gear problems was given final clearance to land on runway Nine Right. Fire trucks were standing by. Unlike Flight 401's faulty light, National 607's problem was seen as a real emergency. Meanwhile Loft and Stockstill continued to discuss the light fixture.
"Have you ever took it out of there?" Loft asked.
"Hadn't till now."
"Put it in the wrong way, huh?"
"Looks square to me," Stockstill said.
While Flight 401 was flying over the Everglades, the skies were busy with other flights; Avianca 781 took off from Miami International's runway Nine Left, followed by eastern 470. Eastern Flight 111 landed on Runway Nine Left. West Indian Flight 790 entered a final approach. Immediately behind that plane was Lan-Chile Flight 451, and backed up and waiting to land was National Airlines Flight 437. In the midst of all this holiday traffic, National Airlines Flight 607 - the one with the gear problem - landed without incident. Loft and Stockstill continued to discuss the lamp assembly.
"I don't know what the hell is holding that son of a bitch in," said Stockstill. "Always something - we could have made schedule." An altitude alert sounded its C-Chord chime for one second and stopped. Loft again turned his attention to the backup method of insuring that the gear was extended.
"We can tell if that son of a bitch is down by looking at the indices," he said. "I'm sure it's down, there is no way it couldn't help but be."
"I'm sure it is," Stockstill said.
"It free-falls down," continued Loft.
"The tests didn't show that the lights worked anyway," Stockstill offered, referring to Repo's test a few moments earlier.
"That's right," Loft agreed.
"It's a faulty light," said Stockstill. He was still attempting to remove the light. "Bob, this son of a bitch just won't come out."
"All right, leave it there," said the captain.
Then Repo reappeared from the hell hole. "I don't see it down there."
"Huh?" said Loft.
"I don't see it," Repo repeated.
Loft told him, "You can't see the indices - for the nose wheel, ah, there's a place in there you can look and see if they're lined up."
"I know," Repo said. "A little like a telescope."
"It's not lined up?"
"I can't see it. It's pitch dark, and I throw the little light, I get, ah, nothing."
Loft threw a switch on the overhead panel. "Now try it."
Repo went back down the ladder into the avionics bay. This time, Donadeo followed him. As Donadeo left the flight deck, he noticed that Stockstill had his right hand on the yoke and was pushing or pulling the light assembly with his left. Loft had loosened or unfastened his lap belt and was reaching across the center control pedestal, attempting to help. The captain's left arm was braced against the top of the glare shield and he was reaching for the light with his right arm, crossing just forward of the throttles.
At the airport, the approach controller looked at the altitude block listed next to the little blip representing Eastern 401 on his radar screen. The plane was supposed to be at two thousand feet, but the crisp, green phosphorescent numerals read nine hundred. The controller radioed the plane, "Eastern 401, how are things coming along out there?" Loft answered, "Okay, we'd like to turn around and come back in." And then he told Stockstill, "Clear on Left."
From the controller came the instruction, "Eastern 401, turn left heading one-eight-zero." Loft acknowledged, "One eighty." The L-1011 began a gradual left turn. On the radio speakers, the approach controller could be heard telling Lan-Chile 451 to descend to fifteen hundred feet. The Lan-Chile pilot acknowledged.
"We did something to the altitude," Stockstill said.
Stockstill: "We're still at two thousand, right?"
Loft: "Hey, what's happening here?"
At the airport, the approach controller handled another plane and looked again at the radar screen. On the screen, Flight 401's data block read "CST" - for "coast," which is shown when a beacon target is lost or becomes too weak to correlate for three sweeps of the radar antenna .
He radioed the Whisperliner again: "And, ah, eastern 401, are you requesting the equipment?" There was silence. "Eastern, ah, 401, ah, I've lost you, ah, on the radar there, your transponder. What's your altitude now? Eastern 401, Miami "
There was no answer.
Then after a few moments of silence and radio static, at 11:43 PM came an ominous message from another aircraft in the area; "Ah, Miami tower this is National 611, we just saw a big explosion, looks like it was out west. I don't know what it means, but I thought you should know."
The airplane crashed at 25°51′53″N,80°35′43″W. The location was west-northwest of Miami, 18.7 miles from the end of runway Nine Left. The elevation was 8 feet above sea level in the Everglades. The terrain was flat marshland on which saw grass grew to heights of three to ten feet high in six to 12 inches of water.
The plane was traveling 227 miles per hour when it flew into the ground. The left wingtip hit first, then the left engine and the left landing gear. Together they slashed three trails through the saw grass, each five feet wide and more than 100 feet long. When the main part of the fuselage hit the ground it continued to move through the grass and water, disintegrating as it went. From first impact to last movement the Whisperliner traveled more than one third of a mile. Midway along the path, the plane slewed around until it was sliding backward. The great white fuselage burst into five large pieces and countless fragments.
When the airplane first touched the ground, it seemed to Ann Connell that it did so in a normal horizontal landing position. Then it lifted and hit again. "My husband grabbed me. What followed felt like a roller coaster or wild whip ride." Barry Connell threw his arm around his wife. He noticed that while the first touchdown was light, the second was a hard, grinding impact. The nose of the plane slewed clockwise. A fireball rushed through the cabin, from front to rear, touching the ceiling and extending as low as the tops of the seats. The plane was skidding. When Connell felt a blast of cold air and a wet, in-rushing wave of fuel, he knew the plane was breaking up.
In the front of the plane, strapped into her seat against the rear wall of the cockpit, Adrianne Hamilton felt the entire nose of the airplane rotate violently to the right; she lurched left, but was held by her seat belt. The lights went out and she was in darkness. She was wet. She smelled aircraft fuel and was seized by the fear of fire.
In the extreme rear of the aircraft, sitting in the coach lounge, Beverly Raposa felt the plane bank to the left. She felt herself being shaken like a rag doll; "I could see my arms going in front of me from side to side and I felt my feet also going from side to side. My body was held in tightly by the shoulder harness. But the rest of me was going along with this jolting." She tried to see what was happening. Her view was partially blocked by the service console and a coat closet, but she saw a ball of flame in the cabin. "I could see things flying all about me...there was a rush of wind...it sounded like we were in the middle of a tornado. The coat closet disappeared. Nothing was there but open space."
Forward of the wing, Jerry Solomon suddenly saw "lights flashing, metal and debris flying through the air. It must have been the electrical system shorting out. There was ripping and tearing and shredding and people crying. I thought I was in a dream. I was just turning, twisting, everything happening at once. It wasn't like people say, your life passing before you. There wasn't any warning. It just happened. It happened too quick for me to get frightened "
Mercy Ruiz thought she saw lightning coming toward her from the end of the cabin. One passenger saw "bright flashes like sparks."
A passenger in seat 14E thought the jetliner was making a normal landing; then he realized that all of the airplane forward of his row was gone. Lorenzo Zetlin, a New York interior designer, was in seat 15H. He had been talking to the man next to him, an auto parts dealer from Hialeah. "The plane started shaking, violent shaking like a cardboard box. It started coming apart. water and oil were everywhere." Zetlin looked up. The man from Hialeah "seemed to be on the ceiling."
Gustavo Casado was sitting in seat 16C with his wife beside him in 16D and their two month old daughter, Christy, seated on his wife's lap. "On impact we lost Christy. We searched for her in the dark amid the debris for more than 20 minutes. For, what to me seemed as an eternity and finally a miracle. At more than 40 feet away, my wife felt her cry and rushed to pick her up from a mangled twist of wires and bushes."
Jerry Eskow, still nursing his double scotch in first class, awakened to "a lot of noise and a lot of vibrations." he thought he was still asleep and dreaming. "All of the sudden I felt like I was suffocating. I couldn't breathe. I ripped off my shirt and jacket. Suddenly the noise stopped. I was sitting upright in my seat in water up to my waist. It was pitch black. I heard screaming. And I realized: If I'm not dreaming, the plane has crashed. And I'm alive."
Solomon says he recalls unfastening his seatbelt and "walking out into the marsh. The plane broke up into three or four sections, and the sections were spread out over the marsh. Each section was like its own little group [of survivors], detached from the others."
Grad student Joseph Popson was reading his book. "The last thing I recall was the sound of the engines revving. Maybe my memory is wrong, but I still hear that roar." He woke up in a puddle near an engine, missing some clothes but generally OK. "The next thing I remember was struggling to breathe. On my hands and knees in six inches of water; I was cold; I heard moans and yelling; I smelled fumes."
Some survivors were surprisingly uninjured. George Gaudiello, reported to Time Magazine "my wife tells me she unfastened my seat belt and we walked to a group of people who seemed in fairly good condition. I have no recollection of this." Similarly, after helping free a fellow passenger from the wreckage, Thomas Rothenberg, a warehouse supervisor in New York City, stood around with three other survivors and, he said later, "talked about what we did for a living." Michael Siminerio, 22, didn't remember the impact. "I was one of the lucky ones. It was really scary. People were crying. A man couldn't find his wife."
Lilly Infantino drowned. Renee Shackelford was thrown from the plane; she landed on her side in saw grass two hundred and ten feet from the cockpit. Her neck was broken - death was instant. Evelyn de Salazar landed fifty feet from the cockpit, her seat still intact, and dies from multiple injuries. The poodle under her seat lived. Ed Ulrich and Sandra Burt, sitting together in first class, were separated by fifty yards. Both lived. Johnathan Kaminer, a two year old child dressed in a red-and-blue outfit, was hurled three hundred feet north of the cockpit. He was almost unmarked except for two small lacerations on his face. He died, as did his mother and governess, Michael-Ann Kaminer and Silvia Crespo. Carmen Jorge was killed. Her eighteen month old infant, Christina, lived.
As the airplane broke up, the same apparently random pattern of survival and slaughter was repeated, time and time again.