"We consider it the day our second life began," Christina Casado-Acorn, said of Dec. 29, 1972. "The three of us toast to life on that day every year."
Following the crash, Raposa was praised for her valor. She worked only briefly as a flight attendant after the crash. She left Eastern and worked in the travel agency industry. Trudy Smith didn't return to flying. "They gave us six months off and then we were expected to be 'over it.'," she says now. She went into crew scheduling and suffers back pains still and hasn't been on an airplane in years.
Beverly Raposa doesn't mind flying. "I still love to fly; I get on planes and fall asleep like a baby," jokes Raposa. "I consider the survivors 75 miracles. That was an unsurvivable crash, but we made it out," she said.
Ruiz, 63, of West Miami-Dade, still has aches and pains but returned to flying until Eastern folded in 1991. She put in 11 more years with United before retiring.
"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."
PHOTO of Mercy Ruiz and her Samsonite suitcase in May 2009. Above based on an article by Luisa Yanez, Copyright December 2007 The Miami Herald Media Company
Work toward erecting a permanent memorial for Flight 401 at the Curtiss Mansion in Miami continues under the leadership of survivors Ron Infantino and Beverly Raposa. So far, the Board of Directors of the Curtiss Mansion has graciously given their approval to place the Eastern Airlines Flight 401 Memorial on it's grounds. As you may know, the mansion is an historic landmark in Miami, located just north of the airport it served as the location of the NTSB hearings into the crash. The bronze plaques are being donated as well as the granite base.
"I think it's nice, but I don't think I really deserve a lot of hullabaloo over this," Marquis, 78, of Homestead, said of the award. "This is way in the past."
Some of those he saved were there, including flight attendants Mercy Ruiz and Sue Tebbs, as well as Beverly Raposa, the flight attendant who rallied passengers to safety after the crash. Also in attendance was Ron Infantino, David Kaplan and the Casado family.
Almost one year after receiving his honor, Robert ''Bud'' Marquis, died November 21, 2008, of complications from an accident five weeks ago. He was 79. His wife said his ashes would be spread over the crash site in the Everglades that ''he loved so much,'' at a later date.
Marquis is also survived by a son, Donald Marquis of Altamonte Springs; a daughter, Terri Mabie of Tucson; 10 grandchildren; and three great-grandchildren.
"It has always bothered me that there was nothing done with 401," said Dummett, a retired Miami-Dade firefighter and founder of the American Airboat Search and Rescue Association, now living in Lake Wales.
Dummett hopes that the event will inspire a permanent memorial to Eastern Flight 401, similar to the ValuJet Memorial off the Tamiami Trail in the Everglades. ValuJet 592 went down in May 1996, killing all 110 on board.
Then, on Saturday, December 29, a fleet of over 100 airboats carried survivors, their families and others to the crash site for a special memorial.
Photos of the 35th anniversary memorial gathering at the crash site, December 29, 2007. Above Left - Ron Infantino stands among survivors. Abover right - Over 100 airboats participated in the evenet. Below Left - In red, stewardess Beverly Raposa at the memorial. Below Right - Gatherers take a moment to honor Robert 'Bud' Marquis. All photos by Southern Airboat, who coordinated the event.
Above: Flight attendants Beverly Raposa and Mercy Ruiz sit on a patch of ground in the Everglades where their flight crashed 35 years earlier. Below: The Casado family tour the crash site. Christina (center) was two-months-old at the time of the crash, making her the youngest survivor . Photos: AL DIAZ | MIAMI HERALD
Above: A piece of wreckage from Flight 401 still visible in the Everglades. This photo taken in September 2009.
THE CRASH OF FLIGHT 401 20 YEARS LATER SURVIVORS LIVE WITH PAIN, MEMORY
Author: ARNOLD MARKOWITZ Herald Staff Writer Copyright (c) 1992 The Miami Herald
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?'"
ANGELO J. DONADEO
Age 79, died Saturday, October 2, 2004 in Land O'Lakes, FL. He was born in Pittsburgh, PA and was a 26 year resident of Christmas, FL. He was a retired aircraft Engineer with Eastern Airlines in Miami, a survivor of the December 1972 crash of the L-1011 in the Everglades, and a Navy veteran of WWII. After retiring he volunteered with the Civil Air Patrol, his last rank was Lt. Colonel. Angelo was a friend to all who know him, generous with his time to anyone who needed him and a devoted husband and father. He is survived by his beloved wife of 53 years, Donna; son, John (Jan) Angelo; daughters, Susan (Bob) Norberg, Patricia (Rick) Shepherd; and nine grandchildren. Visitation: Thursday, October 7, from 6pm to 8pm at Loyless Funeral Home Chapel, with a Funeral mass at Our Lady of the Rosary Catholic Church on Friday at 10am. Interment will follow at 2pm at Florida National Cemetery. LOYLESS FUNERAL HOME, Land O'Lakes/Lutz Chapel
THE GHOST OF FLIGHT 401
Although there is no factual evidence to support the claim, legend has it that after the crash investigation, surviving avionics and galley equipment was salvaged from the crash site, returned to the manufacturers and overhauled to help relieve equipment shortages on Lockheed's growing production line. The majority of this equipment was fitted into Eastern's L-1011 N318EA while it was being assembled in Palmdale.
Not long after, "ghosts" of Loft and Repo were seen on more than twenty occasions by crew members on other Eastern Tri-Stars, especially those planes which had been fitted with parts salvaged from the Flight 401 wreckage. The apparitions of Loft and Repo were invariably described as being extremely lifelike. They were not only reported by people who had known Loft and Repo, but the ghosts were also subsequently identified from photographs by people who had not known Loft and Repo
The strange tales of the ghostly airmen of Flight of 401 circulated in the airline community. An account of the paranormal happenings even appeared in a 1974 issue of the US Flight Safety Foundation newsletter. John G. Fuller, the best-selling author of The Ghost of Flight 401, carried out an investigation into the hauntings with the aid of several cautious airline personnel. A mass of interesting testimony was produced as a result.
Airline employees began spreading stories of apparitions to the point where Eastern management warned employees that they could face dismissal if caught, and any log book entries about such matters would be removed. Frank Borman called it all a bunch of "crap" and considered suing the producers of the 1978 made-for-TV movie about the ghost stories for libel.
In the end, it appears that the source of the stories was an article in an issue of the Flight Safety Foundation. The article covered the story of an Eastern L-1011 ferry flight where the jet lost one of the two operating engines and the pilot had a challenging landing. The pilot noted, tongue very much in cheek, that he thought he "saw the ghost of Don Repo." This quote, which was obviously a joke, was presented in the Ghost of Flight 401 as fact. Combined with numerous anonymous witnesses and countless tales, the rumors spread throughout the aviation community. Eastern management must have taken the stories somewhat seriously, however. One retired Eastern L-1011 pilot I spoke to said that he had a second officer flying with him on a B-727 for several months in the Spring of '73 who was a self-ordained preacher. "He swore that Frank Borman had paid him to come to Miami and perform an exorcism on #318."
This pilot added, however, that he "flew 318 several times in the late 80s and never saw any unnatural apparitions - some weird looking people, but no ghosts."
Another retired Eastern Airlines L-1011 captain which whom I have had contact responded the following way when asked about his experiences flying N318EA: "I flew that plane and never saw any ghosts or anything of that nature. I do recall that some gremlins were on it though and they kept messing up my landing!!!!"
Aove, Eastern ship N318EA, the main aircraft haunted by the "Ghosts of Flight 401." The tall building behind the plane is Building 16 at MIA, the former headquarters of Eastern Air Lines. Photo credit: Don Boyd of Sun Bird Photos.
Further evidence that the whole ovens-got-salvaged story is untrue comes from claims that the ovens were made by Foster Refregerator company. Eastern's L-1011's came equipped with six Bowmar ovens (Lockheed Part Number 671878-115). The oven choices for airlines were either Nordskog or the Bowmar/Calrod brand. The Nordskog were installed mostly on the L1011-500 series. Eastern used the Bowmar/Calrod brand. An Eastern flight attendant posted this scan (below) from his L-1011 FA manual. You can see the brand name on the oven instruction plate.
I should add that Dorothy R. Loft and her two children, Kimberly and Robert, Jr sued Fuller for invasion of privacy over the book . They claimed that the deceased’s name was being used for the “commercial” purpose of selling books about the fatal crash (and a movie based on the book) by referring to the decedent as a “reappearing ghost.” The family lost the suit, and subsequent appeals. The court citing, among other reasons, that the claimants were found to be actors or participants in newsworthy stories or events, that the book —a nonfictionalized account based on the author’s own investigation—fell under the “legitimate public interest” exception.
"CRASH" BOOK AND MADE FOR TV MOVIE (1977/ 1978)
The most accurate account of the crash of Flight 401 was authored by a journalist from the Miami Herald, Rob Elder. His 1977 book, Crash, tells the story of many of the passengers, the investigation and aftermath of Flight 401. Mr. Elder later became an Editor at the San Jose Mercury News. His writings form the basis for much of this Web site, with permission. Thank you, Rob.
His book was later adapted into a made-for-tv movie starring William Shatner as an NTSB investigator. The movie is fairly innacurate and over-dramitized. Stick with the book.
A scene from the TV movie "The Crash of Flight 401" (1978)
Eastern Airlines Flight 401: The Ghosts of Memories Past
Late in the evening of Friday, December 29, 1972, I was at the old Sun Flying Club tie-down area located on the east side of Opa locka Airport in metropolitan Miami, Florida. As I sit writing this 34 years later in December 2006, I can still visualize the events of that night just as if they had occurred yesterday. It's truly amazing how the mind works for, at the time, I had no idea of the significance of what I saw that night nor did I intend to store it away in my memory banks. I was then almost 26 years old and had recently graduated from Florida Atlantic University in Boca Raton. By that time, I had also earned a commercial pilot license with airplane single and multi-engine and instrument ratings. Like a lot of other aspiring commercial pilots, I had had a checkered aviation career, having worked, among other things, as the full-time chief pilot of a regional oil company while attending college. It was an easy way to break the monotony of intense study, tour the good old USA and also earn a few bucks and I must emphasize the aspect of the earnings.
The Sun Flying Club wasn't really a "flying" club. It was more accurately a "tie-down"club; the members owned their aircraft and joined the club to be able to tie-down their aircraft at reasonable costs and have access to a ramp area where they could perform routine maintenance on their planes. (The club is still in existence at the Opa locka Airport, but it was relocated to a different site on the field years ago.) When I was learning to fly in the mid-1960s at Sun Line Helicopters, one of the fixed base operators (FBO) tied into the Miami-Dade Junior College aviation program at the Opa locka Airport, I worked as a line boy refueling aircraft and doing minor line maintenance. The flying club tie-down area and ramp were immediately adjacent to the Sun Line operation and I often was called upon to fuel aircraft on the Sun Flying Club property. That was a godsend because I got to meet and befriend many of the club members, most of whom were successful small business owners enjoying the fruits of their labor by owning and operating private aircraft (something that is almost cost prohibitive in today's aviation, regulatory and business environments).
The flying club was also a de facto social club with members having the common bonds of flying and aircraft ownership. In short, it was a great place to eat (we used to have outstanding club Bar-B-Q, talk airplanes, perform minor maintenance and fly planes. Even though I didn't own an airplane, the club members considered me one of their own, a privilege that I treasure and respect to this day, despite the fact that I haven't had any involvement with the club since the late 1970s. We had a habit of informally gathering at the clubhouse on Friday and Saturday evenings to down a few beers and catch up on all the news that had any impact on us. Effectively, we turned the clubhouse into the European equivalent of a weekend pub. It was during one of those sessions on December 29, 1972, that Eastern Airlines Flight 401 crossed paths with me and some of the other club members.
As I recall that December night, it was a relatively cool evening for south Florida with a moonless night sky. Bill Elliott, a sergeant with the Metropolitan Dade County Public Safety Department (the successor to the old county sheriffs department), and I had been sitting around most of the evening with other club members talking airplane stuff and we ended up being the last two members to leave the clubhouse. Bill, ironically, as well as being the proud owner of a pristine Cessna 180 was one of the helicopter pilots for the Metro-Dade police department. We were standing outside the clubhouse on the ramp, getting ready to lock up the building before leaving, when we both noticed something unusual overhead.
In unison, we looked up to see the silhouette of a Lockheed L1011 flying westbound at an altitude of about 2,000 feet. It was somewhere between 11:30 pm and 11:35 pm, a fact that I specifically remember because I took the time to look at my wristwatch and comment to Bill. The underside of the L1011 was reflecting the ground lighting from the airport and the surrounding city which made it easy to identify the aircraft type although we couldn't identify the airline. (The largest L1011 operators then at MIA were Eastern Airlines and Delta Airlines, but I don't recall seeing any airline markings when the L1011 was overhead.) What was so strange was that it was there in the first place. It was rare for commercial airliners to fly westbound directly overhead Opa locka Airport at such a relatively low altitude. The control tower at Opa locka shut down at 11pm each evening back then so the L1011 had to be in contact with Miami Approach Control, since we assumed it was ultimately being vectored for an approach to MIA.
Bill and I left for our respective homes after securing the clubhouse. I was tired and hit the sack as soon as I got home. Bill Elliott had a much more eventful night.
The next morning, as was my usual Saturday routine, I drove to the Sun Flying club timing it to arrive at approximately 11am. It turned out to be anything other than a routine Saturday! Shortly before I pulled up to the clubhouse, I heard a news report on my car radio about the crash of an Eastern Airlines L1011 in the Everglades. That was the first time I had heard of the crash. By the time I got to the clubhouse, there must have been 10 to 15 members milling about, all discussing the crash. They also told me that Bill had been called shortly after he got home by the police department helicopter unit to come back to the airport (the police helicopter unit was based at Opa locka) for emergency flight duty. He ended up making numerous trips out to the levee where the rescue operation base was located. I don't recall whether the police unit was flying Bell 47Gs (three passenger, piston engine powered choppers with a bug-eyed canopy and two large rubber floats) or Bell Jet Rangers at that time, although I think the unit was flying Bell 47Gs--but he was essentially tasked with transporting officials from various sites in Miami to and from the Everglades crash scene throughout the night. Obviously, he was home trying to get some rest at noon on Saturday, but he eventually came out to the clubhouse late in the afternoon or early evening.
Speculation at the club was rampant which is to be expected from a bunch of pilots. However, we had one advantage that members of the general public didn't have - we had access to airplanes. Shortly after I arrived, one of my friends, Hansel Meighen, practically dragged me to his airplane and loudly announced that we were going to go fly out to the Everglades crash site. I told Hansel that we needed to check, before we got into the air, whether there were any flight restrictions over the crash site which seemed pretty logical to me. Off I went to check with the FAA Flight Service Station. Sure enough, I recall that the initial restricted area was posted in a Notice to Airmen (NOTAM) and set out a no-fly zone that had a one mile radius from the crash site up to 2,000 feet above mean sea level. (It was later expanded to a much larger area either later that same day or the next day.)
Back to the clubhouse and armed with the airspace restrictions, I was ready to fly. Now for the big decisions - who gets to ride with us? Hansel owned a single engine Piper Comanche 250, registered as N7510P, that held four people, including the pilot. He wanted me to be the pilot (no objection from me) and he would occupy the co-pilot's seat. That left two seats open. I vaguely remember that we ended up taking a total of five people on that flight. That's why Hansel wanted me to fly; it would be my license that got revoked if we got caught, not his! Anyway, the statute of limitations has long since passed. I checked my log book entry for Dec. 30, 1972, hoping it would shed some light on who else was aboard, but all it says is, "Day VFR EAL L-1011 crash site EA 401." Evidently, I wasn't so stupid as to put any regulatory violations in writing in my log book. Good for me! I'm pretty sure that Tom Roche and Bob Crews were two of the "lucky" ones that got aboard, but I couldn't swear to it now.
I don't remember the take-off or the landing that day, but I vividly remember the meteorological conditions and the crash site. It was approximately 15 to 20 miles west-southwest of the Opa locka Airport and it was pretty difficult to find at first. We were like five bobbing bubble-head dolls because there were a lot - and I mean a lot - of other aircraft up in the air doing the same thing we set out to do. This was only about 12 hours after the L1011 crashed! Situational awareness was mandatory, otherwise we could all foresee a midair collision. The flying safety was even more compromised because it was slightly hazy which reduced visibility to seven to ten miles over the Everglades. We could also see a few other aircraft flying into the restricted airspace. Those pilots probably didn't even know there was a NOTAM prohibiting flight immediately above the crash site. I had initially intended to fly a little above 2,000 feet to avoid the restrictions, but I ended up closer to 3,000 feet to avoid the other aircraft. Discretion was the better part of valor.
The Everglades is flat, covered with tall saw grass and immersed in water that ranges from a few inches deep to three to four feet deep in some areas. It's a swamp, a flat swamp. From a half mile above, it's like an artist's canvas. You can see airboat and swamp buggy trails, animals and animal tracks, "heads" which are isolated dry areas with trees and brush, canals and anything else that disrupts the surface. After we visually established where the crash site was located, we could see the initial ground contact point and the distribution of the wreckage quite clearly. (No one had a camera, so I don't have any personal photos.) It looked as though the L1011 was in a shallow left turn and dragged the left wing tip in the swamp. What happened next must have happened very quickly. My guess is that the L1011 essentially did a flat or horizontal cartwheel and tore itself apart. The largest recognizable pieces of wreckage were the cockpit section and the center engine intake and attached fuselage section. Also notable were the Eastern Airlines two-tone blue and white colors on the larger pieces of wreckage. I don't recall any large scorched patches of saw grass, but I remember a few small burned areas. Everything else was in small pieces spread in a general southwest or south-by-southwest direction for 1,500 to 2,000 feet. It didn't look as if anyone could have possibly survived the crash, yet 75 people did. That was a miracle that is probably attributable to three factors: (1) the crash site was a soft, wet swamp; (2) there was no significant post-crash fire; and (3) the force of disintegration was directed horizontally and not vertically, flinging many survivors out into the swamp instead of subjecting them to fatal blunt force trauma which is characteristic of most airplane crashes.
There was a lot of activity on the ground, but we couldn't see much detail from 3,000 feet. I think all the survivors had been rescued by that time and taken to hospitals, but there were a lot of bodies still at the crash site. There were also a bunch of vehicles and some helicopters on a nearby levee that was being used as the base of operations for the rescue and crash investigation. Other than those observations, I don't recall much more from that flight. We exited the area and returned to Opa locka Airport, but our conversations were subdued. All of us realized that many people had lost their lives and that there was a bit of mystery surrounding why a relatively new L1011 crashed into the Everglades on a clear, dark night. Most of what we talked about on the return to the airport was speculation on our part as to how the plane crashed, not why it crashed. It was a solemn and sobering return flight. My log book shows that our flight lasted 1.2 hours.
Later that afternoon or evening, Bill Elliott came back to the clubhouse where we were all waiting for him so he could let us know what he did and saw. Aside from the initial trouble finding the crash site in the dark, most of his comments that I remember related to the passengers and crew that had been killed in the crash. Bill was a career police officer who had been exposed to death and trauma, but his comments really reflected an attitude of both wonder and sadness. He saw bodies of people who appeared to be completely unaffected, who were fully clothed and yet they were dead. There were bodies that were naked, which we all figured occurred because they had been flung out of the protected environmental cocoon of the L1011 into 200 mph winds when the fuselage broke up. Many of the survivors were also stripped of their clothes and this contributed to medical problems with all the bacteria in the Everglades water and the relatively cold temperatures that night. I especially remember Bill describing passengers who apparently survived the crash impact, but were knocked unconscious and were still strapped into their seats. They had drowned because their seats landed with their heads tilted down into the swamp water. He seemed deeply saddened by that fact. In fact we all were troubled because, by the luck of the draw or fate, some passengers survived while others in similar situations who looked as though they should have survived, were killed. The cruel facts of this disaster only reinforced my observation that you won't die unless it's your time to die. That credo seems to be exemplified in every major airplane crash.
My direct and indirect contact with Eastern Flight 401 didn't end on December 30, 1972. I come from an Eastern family - my mother, Betty Olson, retired from Eastern in 1976. She worked in the executive offices at Easterns Miami base. About a year after the crash of Flight 401, she told me that one of the flight attendants who had survived the crash had come back to work at Eastern, but was assigned to the executive secretarial pool while she recovered from her physical injuries and tried to cope with her mental anguish. My mother never told me the flight attendant's name, but she did say that she had suffered a broken back in the crash. Mom apparently worked closely with that flight attendant. According to my late mother, she wanted to get back to flying, but she was petrified every time she heard jet noise. In fact, she told my mother that she cringed in fear every time she drove down Le Jeune Road (the eastern boundary of Miami International Airport) just because of all the jet noise when planes were landing and taking off. I don't know if she ever did return to flying; my mother never told me one way or the other.
My former brother-in-law, James Anderson, was an avid air boat owner and hunting enthusiast. He was one of those rare south Florida individuals who owned a ton of hunting rifles and lived for the deer hunting season so he could go out on his air boat and hunt scrawny deer in the Everglades. (Deer in south Florida are almost anemic compared to deer in other parts of the country.) Obviously, I'm not a hunter, but I don't begrudge those who do hunt responsibly. James followed all of the rules and more often than not, brought home venison for the family each deer season. His hunting escapades on his air boat meant that he was very familiar with the area where Flight 401 crashed in the Everglades. That area was off limits to hunters and others for a number of months while federal investigators searched the area for clues to the crash. Eventually, the investigations were concluded and most, but not all, of the wreckage was removed or salvaged from the Everglades. It is almost a physical impossibility to find and remove every scrap of wreckage from a swamp. One day, late in 1973, I got a phone call from James telling me to come over to his house; he had something for me.
Little did I expect to see what he actually had. Now that the crash site was again open to the public, he had gone out into the Everglades to scout the area on his air boat. Surprisingly, he found that there were large pieces of wreckage still out in the glades. So, being the thoughtful brother-in-law he was, unbeknownst to me he had collected some of the wreckage of Flight 401. I was amazed at the size of some of the pieces of wreckage he brought home on the air boat. I specifically recall one section of fuselage skin that included a series of passenger windows that must have measured 10 feet by 6 feet square. There were also other artifacts such as yellow airline life preservers and panes of plastic passenger windows. I diplomatically told James that I couldn't take possession of the large pieces of wreckage. I didn't tell him that it felt really strange realizing that so much of the plane was still out in the glades. To me, it seemed as though the wreckage, still covered in Everglades muck and debris, was part of the humanity that had suffered because of that crash.
The only piece of wreckage I did keep, and which I still have in my possession, is one of the plastic passenger window panes. That simple piece of plastic represents a tie between me and what happened to the passengers and crew on Flight 401 on December 29, 1972. It is personal and it has served over the intervening years to remind me of how precious and tenuous life can be.
Eric Olson holding a piece of wreckage from Flight 401. PHOTO CREDIT: Patrick Farrell - Miami Herald Staff
I have lost contact with Bill Elliott. He retired from the Metro-Dade police department and moved to Brooksville, Florida many years ago. Hansel Meighen died on April 15, 1999, and is buried in Ft. Pierce, Florida. Each year on December 29th, I spend a little time thinking about that silhouetted L1011 heading west over Opa locka Airport. I'll forever believe that it was Eastern Flight 401, just minutes before it and its passengers and crew became part of aviation history and legend. Let them not be forgotten.
35 Years after an Eastern Air Lines jet crashed into the Everglades, a rescuer looks back.
By JEFF KLINKENBERG, Times Staff Writer
Published September 16, 2007
This is the story about the night a jumbo jet landed among the pig frogs and alligators, the cottonmouth snakes and yellow-crowned night herons, in the Everglades. Robert L. Marquis - "Bud" to friends - wanted to eat frogs' legs. He was out there gigging frogs when it happened.
A yellow flash. Boom. Blackness. Silence.
It was closing in on midnight on Dec. 29, 1972. Speeding across the 'glades in his airboat, Bud was the first rescuer on the scene. He saw tangled metal and smelled aviation fuel. He saw mangled bodies and heard the pitiful moans of the dying.
He rescued some terrified folks - he doesn't know how many - before the regular cavalry of official rescuers arrived in helicopters, directed to the carnage by his head lamp. He carried survivors to safety and made them as comfortable as he could.
Then he was pretty much forgotten.
Old and sick now, he lives in near poverty on the edge of the Everglades. His name showed up recently on a Web site (eastern401.googlepages.com) about the 35th anniversary of a tragedy that killed more than 100 passengers and traumatized dozens more.
Folks from South Florida's sporting community, mostly hunters, fishers and airboaters, heard, many for the first time, about Bud. "He's one of us," says John Canti, a firefighter, paramedic and outdoorsman. "He's an airboater."
In recent months Canti and others have made pilgrimages to Bud's screened door to hear his story. The ultimate "yes sir, no sir" man, Bud shuffles reluctantly onto the porch, blinking furiously in the sunlight, wondering what's up. Then he tells the story the best he can.
"Nobody paid him to go out there and try to rescue people," says Ken Pine, who recently fixed Bud's roof. "He was just a guy out there frogging and minding his own business who knew he had to help people in trouble. In my mind, that makes him a real hero."
Pine and others want to do something nice for Bud, perhaps honor him with a special day, raise cash for Bud's taxes, groceries and medical bills.
You know what would make Bud Marquis happy? If one more time he could harvest a mess of frog legs in the Everglades.
- - -
He knows exactly how he'd go about it. He'd launch his airboat at the Miccosukee Indian Reservation on the Tamiami Trail and race north into the river of grass.
On a moonless night, in the beam of his head lamp, the frog eyes would glow like rubies. He'd cruise up on the frog, spear the frog with the 3-pronged gig, knock the frog off the gig into a sack, all the while moving forward in the airboat while getting ready to gig another frog. Mama, heat up the frying pan. We're having legs tonight.
Even at 78, Marquis is an old-fashioned country boy. Born in Arkansas, he grew up in South Florida when everybody seemed to be poor. His fishing and hunting skills helped put supper on the family table.
He likes to think about those days. He also likes not to think about those days. In his mind, he's still a strapping young fellow with big muscles. The bent, white-haired man in the mirror has a bad heart and breathes from an oxygen machine, hasn't been frogging in a coon's age, and hasn't been in his airboat since, well, he can't remember. It's broken, just like him.
At least he lives near his precious Everglades. At night, when he sits on his porch, he can hear the wup-wup bellows of the pig frogs and the heh-heh-heh chatter of the leopard frogs beyond the trees. Of course, hearing them from the porch isn't the same as being in the middle of them armed with a gig, taking a long breath of Everglades air, feeling utterly alive.
Back in the day, when he spent so much time in the wilderness, only the airplanes overhead reminded him of civilization. He'd see the lights and hear the roar as the jets climbed into the black night over the swamp or descended toward Miami International Airport.
- - -
He isn't a talker to begin with, unless it's about boats or engines or the 'glades. He has never taken pleasure in talking about what he saw after Eastern Air Lines Flight 401 went down and how he felt about it. His wife Nancy - they married when she was 15 - could always tell when it was on his mind, though. He'd get that look.
Before a bad back forced an early retirement, Bud laid carpet, grew avocados and worked as a game warden in the Everglades. A friend once warned him: "One day you'll work a plane crash out there." His friend, of course, envisioned a Piper Cub or something small going down in a summer thunderstorm, not a state-of-the-art L-1011 carrying 200 passengers on a perfect winter night.
Bud spent his time arresting grizzled gator poachers and rough-cob deer thieves, cane-polers with too many bream on their stringers and feral teenage boys selling protected Indigo snakes to pet stores.
Sometimes, back when there were no cell phones or GPS electronics to help navigate, he'd get lost at night. He'd stay calm, look at the stars for direction, think things through, then crank up the airboat engine and find his way back to the Tamiami Trail.
At home, waiting sometimes fearfully, was Nancy, a pretty barefoot country girl in a cotton dress. "You didn't have nothing to worry about," he'd tell her, finding a seat on the porch, from where he could hear the barred owls and their singular "who-cooks-for-you" calls, exciting and mournful at once.
- - -
Eastern Air Lines Flight 401 traveled from New York to Miami. The plane, a new "Whisperliner," could transport 229 passengers. On Dec. 29, 1972, it carried 178, including crew.
It promised to be an exciting week in Miami, especially for people who had bucks for a meal at Joe's Stone Crabs and a night at the Fontainebleau Hotel, where the sexy dancer Ann-Margret was headlining. Rowdy fans of Notre Dame and University of Nebraska, scheduled to play on New Year's Day at the Orange Bowl, were poised to take over the town.
Bud no longer worked as a game warden - his day job was laying carpet. After dark he moonlighted as a commercial frogger. He had promised to show a slight acquaintance, Ray Dickinson, how to gig frogs.
Flight 401 left John F. Kennedy at 9:20 p.m. The trip to Florida, by official accounts, was pleasantly routine. "Welcome to Miami," the pilot announced during the descent at 11:30.
Altitude 900 feet.
Something was wrong with the landing gear or the landing-gear light on the control panel. Anyway, the pilots couldn't tell if the wheels were down. At 11:32, they aborted the landing, climbed to 2,000 feet and swung west over the Everglades to work out the problem.
They turned on the autopilot. At least they thought they had. The jet actually began losing altitude, so gradually that no one noticed until the very end. Nobody, not the pilots nor passengers, knew anything was amiss. A glance out a window, after all, would have shown nothing but the black Everglades below.
"Hey, what's happening here?" the pilot asked at the last second.
That was the last transmission before the left wing sliced into the Everglades at 225 mph. The jet bounced once, then hit again. Survivors described a flash or spark that exploded through the cabin as the jet ripped apart.
- - -
Bud Marquis had experienced better nights of frogging. But he and his helper had 30 pounds of legs.
"Then I saw this great big fireball and the whole 'glades lit up. Then zip, the light was out."
Bud revved up the engine and headed northwest.
That section of the Everglades is a tangle of sawgrass, tree islands, canals and levees. Fortunately, Bud was an expert. With the engine dangerously wide open - the boat slipped over the grass at 35 mph - he maneuvered around all obstacles.
Then wham! Aground. When he stopped the engine to push the boat back into the water, he heard a chorus of terrified human voices, hollering, moaning, shrieking.
He cranked up the engine and moved toward the sound. He shut down the engine again to listen. "Hey! Hey! Hey!" Someone had seen his frogging light.
In the narrow beam of his head lamp he now saw enormous strips of torn metal. He saw openings in the sawgrass created by sliding chunks of broken airplane. He saw a man standing, shocked, in knee-deep water.
"He was naked. A lot of the people I saw were naked. I guess their clothes got blown off them."
Bud helped the man into the airboat and poured him coffee from the thermos.
Three women on the jetliner's tail, about 20 feet above the water, begged Bud to save them.
"Ladies, you're safe up there. You don't want to be in the water with me."
Water saturated by jet fuel filled his boots, burning his legs.
He felt helpless, hearing what sounded like hundreds of voices coming at him from different directions. He had lost contact with his frogging helper, Ray, too. Forgotten about him, actually. They didn't find each other until morning. They never met again, never talked again, and never will: Ray died years ago in Arcadia.
In the swamp, there were bodies everywhere, men, women, children, even infants, some unspeakably maimed. Bud saw bodies strapped into seats upside down in the water. If he saw legs kicking, he turned the seat over.
He saw a man, sitting in the water with a neck injury, trying to remain upright. "When I tried to prop him up it felt like every bone in his body was broken."
After about an hour, he saw the first helicopter. It seemed to be miles off course. Bud waved his light until the helicopter took notice.
When the Coast Guard helicopter attempted a landing, the prop wash threw hunks of debris dangerously around. Bud waved the helicopter toward a nearby levee. That's where the helicopters, one after another, landed that night, and where ambulances arrived to load the dead and injured.
- - -
Officially, 103 passengers and crew died. Seventy-five miraculously survived.
Bud's heroics were featured prominently a few days later in the Miami Herald. He was mentioned in a book, The Crash of Flight 401, later made into a B-movie, and helped a Hollywood writer with the awful Ghosts of Flight 401, about commercial jets haunted by the dead pilots.
Several survivors tracked him down to thank him personally. One gave him money. He can't remember anyone's name now.
In 1985, his years as a manual laborer caught up with him. Carpet layers need strong backs. His required surgery. The government considered him totally disabled.
In 1992, Hurricane Andrew blew the roof of the house across the street through his front windows. The other house is gone; his still requires repairs.
"It's 100 degrees in the house, honey," Nancy says, joining him on the porch. Only their bedroom has an air conditioner.
Bud asks his wife to look for his scrapbooks. She returns with a musty volume that smells like a lion's den. Bud and Nancy own 27 domestic cats, including 15 that live indoors on sofas, tables and bookshelves.
Flipping through the pages, Bud smiles for the first time in hours. He looks at the photo of the primitive camp he built in the cypress trees so many years ago when he was young and strong and could hunt and gig frogs and look at the stars.
"I'd like to go there," he says.
"Remember what the doctor said," Nancy chimes in. His doctor warned him not to travel alone, not with his weak heart and lungs and aching back.
- - -
Clutching his walking stick, Bud shuffles past a mango tree into the backyard.
The old airboat, the airboat in which he carried injured passengers, waits on a rusty trailer with flat tires. It is 12 feet long and 7 feet across. It has a flat bottom and a high seat and a cobweb-draped engine and propeller.
"I could get it running," he says, fighting for breath. "It needs new points and plugs, maybe a new set of rings. It wouldn't take much."
A Web forum, Southern Airboat, which attracts thousands of worldwide participants, plans to take care of the repairs.
On Dec. 3, Southern Airboat and other organizations also plan to honor Bud and the victims and survivors of Eastern Flight 401 with a service and a barbecue in Miami.
Afterward, folks hope to take the old man into the Everglades, in his own airboat, if he wants. Bud wants to. He wants to show them how to gig frogs.
"You have to keep your eye on the frogs real good when that airboat is moving - I mean not take your eyes away - and be quick with the gig," he says, in what amounts to the Gettysburg Address for him.
"I think I can still do it. I really do think I can gig some frogs if I had to."