Chapter 3 - Rescue
To grasp the size of the Everglades and their barren quality, it is necessary to imagine a land area half as large as Connecticut, flooded by a foot of water and overgrown with impenetrable sage. On December 29th, 1972, Robert Marquis and a friend rode an airboat through the dark expanse of the swamp, gigging frogs. He had built the airboat, registered as FL1785, himself a few years earlier. "As far as I am concerned, there's nothing like it," he said. "There's not a prettier place you can go to get away from people."
The moon had set at 1:12 that afternoon, and a half a mile high, a few clouds plumed in frosty trails. The airboat tunneled through the darkness, its path picked out by a light that Marquis wore on his head, like a coal miner's headlamp. He had fashioned the lamp himself, and kept his head turned slightly to the right. He was looking for bullfrogs to catch. Marquis navigated through the dark swamp by little more than dead reckoning and experience. According to Marquis, he had never been lost in the Glades, although he would concede that "I got misplaced a few times." The trick was to keep in your head a mental map of where you were at all times. He knew that the long, faint glow in the distance was made by the lights of Miami, to the east. And he knew that behind him on the west was Levee 67C, an edifice of the Central and Southern Florida Flood Control District.
My 11:40 Marquis and his friend had caught about thirty pounds of frogs. He had been working his way east, toward the glow of Miami, and now he pulled back on the steering stick and turned the boat north, then a little northwest. Marquis then noticed the lights of a large jet. The plane was flying west, and it seemed very close. Although he couldn't hear the jet over the roar of the airboat's motor, he knew it was very close; he could see the strobe lights flashing in the ends of the wings. Moments later he saw "a ball of fire, an orange, orange glow that just lit up and spread out for about eight thousand feet across the Glades; looked like maybe it went up a hundred foot high, just for a short duration of eight or ten seconds." He yelled to his passenger, Rayburn Dickinson, "that was a plane crash, wasn't it?"
"Yeah, looked like it."
Marquis put his foot on the throttle and started darting across the swamp in the blackness toward where he had seen the flash.
At the US Coast Guard station at Opa-Locka, a slogan is painted on the door leading to the flight line: The busiest air-sea rescue unit in the world. And it's true. Two minutes after Eastern Airlines flight 401 disappeared from a radar screen at Miami International Airport, a telephone rang in the Opa-Locka operations center and the alarm was sounded. By 11:45, the ready crew was air born in a white Sikorsky Sea Guard helicopter. Allan Pell, a thirty-nine year old lieutenant commander was the senior officer on board. He thought: The L-1011 is a new, modern airplane. The weather is clear; it's a nice night. It couldn't happen. He looked at his watch and saw that it was just past midnight. For flying after midnight, he would get the next afternoon off. If the mission continued past 2 a.m., he would get the entire day. He thought: I wonder if we can stretch this thing out until 2 a.m.?
Undated photo of Robert Marquis, likely in the 1970s
Above, an undated photo of Robert Marquis. Right: Lt. Allan Pell (taken from a 1973 Coast Guard training film).
Back in the cold, dark swamp, Jerry Eskow, the trucking executive, could not unfasten his seatbelt. Half submerged, he was still in his seat, naked from the waist up. He was trembling and could not find the strength to unfasten his seatbelt. He could not see another human being, but he knew from the sound of their screams that two woman were somewhere in the darkness around him.
Drenched in jet fuel, 23-year-old flight attendant Beverly Raposa struggled to free herself from her jump seat and piles of debris. In the darkness she could hear the cries of other survivors. She crawled through the darkness and muck and found fellow flight attendant Mercy Ruiz, 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."
Dazed, but undaunted, Beverly brushed the mud off her wings uniform pin and started to rally passengers who had survived the crash. She shouted into the darkness, "if you can hear me, come toward my voice. I'm a stewardess." Someone was looking for a child and she tried to help, but found that she could not. "You could just barely move about. You fell over the metal pieces and the saw grass, and it was hard to move around. I tried to get off the hunk of fuselage we were on, and it was just impossible to move, you sank and you fell, and you cut yourself even more." Even though she couldn't move, Beverly helped calm the survivors. "I think personally I was just as frightened as anyone else. And I knew the possibilities. But these were my people. They were my responsibility, and this was my job as a flight attendant."
To keep them from shock and panic, at her initiative, she started the little group of survivors i rounds of Christmas carols. They did very well until they tried to sing "Frosty the Snowman," and no one could remember the words.
When the injured stewardess Mercy Ruiz complained that she was cold, Beverly placed an infant on top of her. "I want you to take care of him," she said. At first Mercy believed that she was holding a large child, six or seven years old. "I felt this weight on me, like he was covering my body. He kept me kind of warm. I thought it was a big kid." In fact, the baby - both of whose parents were dead - was eleven months old.
Jerry Solomon quickly realized that he was not drowning in the ocean, as he first thought. He climbed out of the wreckage, assuming that if he was alright, other would be as well. He did not feel like he had been in a plane crash. "I could have just gotten in a taxi cab and ridden away. I didn't have a rip in my clothes. My watch was on my wrist and still running."
Solomon helped free two flight attendants who were suspended in their seats above him. They were joined by Barry and Ann Connell. Somewhere on the other side of the wreckage, a man was screaming epithets against Eastern Airlines. "I always knew Eastern was no good," the man yelled. "I do business with them. They take sixty days to pay their bills!"
Ronald Infantino woke up on his back in saw grass six feet high. "I knew my arm was cut bad. I reached over and my fingers went inside my arm. My left knee was smashed...I was cold, the coldest I've ever been." Like many of the other victims, Infantino had been stripped of clothes by the force of the crash. Of all his clothing, only the elastic tops of his socks remained.
Robert Marquis' airboat jounced over the saw grass through the dark swamp for about fifteen minutes. Robert stopped the motor and listened. He heard screams in the distance and was dismayed by the thought that the noise was coming from the other side of the flood control levee. He continued in the direction of the shouts and stopped again. Now the screams seemed to be coming from behind him. He ran the airboat around a thick strand of growth. "The first thing I saw was a great big piece of the wreckage as I was coming across this heavy saw grass. And I literally run right into it. I had to stop the boat, get out, turn it around. It dented the rake on the front of the boat...I turned around, got back on the trail...and hit the path where the plane hit the ground. It looked about fifty to a hundred yards wide and maybe a quarter of a mile long just littered with trash and debris."
"When I first started working into the wreckage, I began seeing people - some of them laying in the water, some of them wandering around, walking, but very slowly. I got as close as I could without running over anybody, and then I got out. There were dead people everywhere. And everywhere I looked were half-naked people. Some completely naked. I felt so helpless. The first one I came to was a man who looked like he was about to drown. Looked like both his legs were broken. Couldn't move. The only thing he could move was his head, and it kept falling into the water. He said, 'Help me; I can't hold my head up much longer.' So I pulled him up and rested his back and propped his head up out of the water. There were lots of people in turned-over seats, their heads in the water. I tried to help the ones that possibly were drowning."
After some minutes, Marquis noticed a helicopter in the sky. It was obviously searching for the crash, but it was sweeping the wrong area. He slogged back to his airboat, got his helmet light and began swinging it around.
Coast Guard helicopter 1376 saw the faint light flashing in the distance. The helicopter swooped down toward the light. As the wreckage came into sight, someone in the helicopter said "Oh, my God." Pell saw bodies, a few hands waving slowly in the grass and one distinguishable piece of airplane wreckage; the tail. "How did anyone live through this," Pell thought. The copter made one full sweep of the area and then climbed back to 300 feet to establish radio contact. Pell called the air station, "We've got one hell of a mess out here."
Another Coast Guard helicopter noted the difficulty in finding a place to land at the crash site. "Everywhere we tried to land there were bodies," said Lt. Bill Hodges."
Pell landed his helicopter and took on survivors, three men and a woman. The helicopter took off into the night sky with the first victims - four of the one hundred and seventy six who would be transported from the scene dead or alive. The time was 12:46, one hour and four minutes after the crash.
Coast Guard Petty Officer Don Schneck arrived on the helicopter and was deposited on the scene. Armed with only a small runway flashlight, Schneck jumped aboard Marquis' airboat for a ride to the main sections of wreckage. He was dropped off about 50 yards from a large section of wreckage, the right wing of the airplane still attached. After wandering in the darkness for about 25 yards, Schneck came upon a man standing there, calling for help.
"Are you from the airplane,?" Schneck asked.
The man indicated his wife was hurt. In the pitch blackness of the swamp, Schneck hadn't noticed that sitting beside the man was a woman, bleeding from the thigh. He used the man's belt to apply a turniquet and moved on.
Next he came upon the cockpit section, laying at a 45 degree angle, roof smashed and cluttered with debris. Hearing voices coming from the chunk of debris stunned him. "I could not imagine anyone surviving inside the twisted remains of the cockpit," he later wrote. "I heard two voices yelling that they could see my light. I peered into a few small holes [in the side of the wreckage] and could see someone, who was moaning slightly." Adrianne called for him to walk around to the other side. As he did, he saw Adrianne Hamilton and Sue Tebbs. After checking their injuries and providing what little comfort he could, Schneck began to move some pieces of debris away from Hamilton. As he did, he discovered the co-pilot, Stockstill, suspended off the ground, bound in a wall of wires and remains of the cockpit/cabin wall. "I could only see his head and shoulders. I checked his eyes...he was dead." Schneck then entered the cluttered remains of the flight deck. He found Loft laying across the control panel under the windshield. "He was alive and moving around. I told him to remain still, he told me he was going to die, and seemed to be struggling to get out of the cockpit." After Loft relaxed, Schneck went below to help to help the two men trapped in the avionics bay.
By now, ambulances were shrieking their way west from Miami on US Highway 41, the Tamiami Trail. The nearest road was eight miles from the crash site, but it was eventually determined that the rescue vehicles could proceed single file along the top of the flood control levee to within one hundred yards of the scene. The levee also became the helicopter landing pad. Mark Scanlan, an off-duty City of Miami police officer had just pulled into his driveway when he began hearing unconfirmed news reports of the crash on his car radio, followed by the sound of the sirens screaming to the north of his Westwood Lakes home. Scanlan quickly threw on his Miami P.D. jumpsuit and rushed to the scene to help. "Upon arriving at the police/rescue command post that had initially been established at U.S. 41 and Levee-67, I found that there was utter confusion. A Florida Highway Patrol Lieutenant was telling a Metro Dade County Police Sergeant that they were taking jurisdiction of the situation. The F.H.P. Lieutenant had said they were controlling any and all access to the levee road (one lane) and that no one was to pass until it could be established that there were survivors and that there was in fact a need for emergency personnel in the swamp. I was, after about 20 more minutes of this nonsense, returning to my car with the full intention of returning home and listening to my police scanner. But as I reached my car a large Coast Guard rescue helicopter landed in the gravel parking area not more than a hundred feet from my car."
After the dust settled, a helmeted Coast Guardsman jumped from the side door of the chopper and motioned to Scanlan. "[He said that] there were many injured people at the crash site and that the only rescuers on the scene at that time were a few Coast Guard rescuers and an airboat with two people on board." Scanlan jumped into the helicopter and flew to the crash site with some paramedics. The first passenger they came across was pinned under a section of fuselage. "[He was] still alive under the center fuselage section with just his head and feet sticking out of the mud. His hips and pelvis were very obviously broken as both legs were perpendicular to his torso, with each foot alongside his head. Imagine a toothpick bent at the center and the two ends brought together. He was pinned under what was a very heavy section of what remained of the center section. It took 6 of us 30 minutes to dig around him and pull him out, but only after rocking that huge section back and forth by literally putting our shoulders into it. The poor guy was very much in shock and kept falling in and out of consciousness. He was still alive when we loaded him up on the Coast Guard chopper but I never learned if he survived."
Another rescue worker was Dr. Jim Hirschman, a Miami cardiologist who, on occasion, worked with the Fire Department. Dr. Hirschman had gotten into emergency care because of is interest in amateur radio. Several years earlier he had successfully sent EKGs from the ship SS Hope off the coast of Africa to his home in Coral Gables. "We took normal firefighters and trained them to be the eyes and hands of us, the doctors." Dr. Hirschman was at home that evening when he received a call from the Miami Fire dispatcher. He and another doctor were taken by a Miami Fire Dept. Chief's car to Opa Locka Airport, and then by Coast Guard Helicopter to the crash scene out in the Everglades. He stepped out of a helicopter into a dark, cold scene. He couldn't think about where to start. "It was so totally dark. Wading and walking was tough. What do you do if you find a body? We had no stretcher bearers. We had no stretchers. A couple of doctors from the military were there giving morphine shots, which probably was not too smart in a trauma case." Soon after his search for survivors began, he was summoned by someone trying to set up a generator and flood lights. "I pitched in, chuckling that I didn't have a course in generators in med school. We found a piece of wing, high and dry upon which we set up the light and generator." Later he made his way to the cockpit section, sliced off from the rest of the wreckage. "Both pilots were there, but they were dead. One was in the seat ( I think) and one was wedged behind a seat (of that I am sure). I checked both and determined that they were dead."
Above, a series of AP/ UPI newswire photos taken the night of the accident. From the left; a man being attended to at an unknown hospital, a survivor being unloaded at the Palmetto helipad, and a survivor being treated upon arrival at Mercy.
Survivors were air lifted to any of several hospitals around Miami, selected by their proximity to the crash site. Palmetto was the closest, and it had a helipad. Hialeah Hospital was also close, but when the helicopter pilots complained that the helipad was difficult to fly to because of the clutter of power lines around it, police cars marked an alternate landing site in the parking lot of the Hialeah Race Track. Both hospitals received six helicopter loads of survivors - 32 people in all. Mercy Hospital received four flights.
The first survivor handed down from a helicopter at Mercy Hospital was Evelyn de Salazar's white poodle. The first human victims were received by Ferne Pletchan, a veteran nurse who stood beside the helipad unloading the passengers from the helicopter. She was struck by their silence. None screamed. Some moaned. A few wept softly. A little boy cried for his mother. Most of the victims seemed semiconscious; yet they were touchingly grateful for blankets and for hands that scraped away the muck that hampered their breathing. "Thank you," they kept saying.
The crash site photographed December 30, 1972. The cockpit section is on the upper left. On the right is a life raft that inflated on impact..
At the scene of the crash, the morning brought a swarm of chartered helicopters, each sprouting television cameras as they circled and hovered over the remains of the L-1011. They took their pictures and headed back into town. Below the news copters, Jimmy Duckworth, a taciturn sergeant, would supervise the recovery of bodies from the swamp. Duckworth and his team waited while Dr. Joe Davis, the medical examiner, attended a meeting in Miami with the National Transportation Safety Board investigators who had arrived during the night from Washington. When Davis and the NTSB team arrived at the crash site, the recovery teams clambered down the side of the levee into the water and waded out into the saw grass and wreckage. Behind them crept airboats piloted by wildlife officers from the Game Commission. Just as the boats had rescued the living last night, they would now ferry the dead today.
The search began at a place designated as point zero; a point distant enough from the wreckage that all agreed no bodies would have been thrown beyond. From there, the searchers spread in a long line and advanced toward the wreckage. The plan was to find a body, number it with an indelible marker, photograph it, tag the body, plant a small yellow flag near the head with the same number on it, and place the body in a body bag. The airboats would then come and pick up the body.
After slogging through the muck for thirty minutes, Duckworth's team discovered the first corpse at 12:30 p.m. It was under water, it was nude, and it was the body of a young woman. Body number two was found fifteen minutes later. Duckworth filled in the blanks of the investigation form: "White male. Small goatee. On back in water. Nude. 500 feet north of tail section." The next body came after four hundred yards and was that of a small boy. He lay on his back in two inches of water, almost unmarked and wearing blue velvet pants and vest and a blue and white checked shirt. The searchers planted the yellow flag beside his head. Number four was a young woman; she lay on her back, eyes open, mouth agape, right hand extended to grasp no one knew what. Someone leaned down and wrote a large black "4" on her chest. The sun inched across the sky and glinted on the growing forest of yellow flags, each inscribed with a number marking the end of a life. For the next few days, the grueling task of identifying bodies and contacting relatives continued.
On New Year's day, Braulio Corretjer, a passenger, died in the hospital of his injuries. Searchers finally found the body of flight attendant Stephanie Stanich still in the Everglades, still strapped in her seat. On Tuesday, the medical examiner and the airline agreed for the first time as to the number of survivors and fatalities; seventy-seven persons lived through the crash, and ninety-nine bodies had been removed from the swamp. By this time, however, two of the original survivors - Don Repo and Corretjer - had died in the hospital on January 3rd and 1st respectively. Two more would die later, Luis Bancroft on January 6 and Warren Terry on January 15th. In the end, Flight 401 had carried 176 persons and within a month of the crash, the final tally would be 103 victims.
The following photos were taken the day after the crash by an independent investigator, Gill Haas, many of which have never been seen before.
Top: Rescue workers in airboats at the scene. The cockpit section rests on its side, the numbers "310" visible on the nose. Below, the first class section of the airplane and the door leading to the cockpit. Adrianne Hamilton's jump seat on the left (behind the beverage cart) and Sue Tebb's seat on the left.
Above, the nose resting in the swamp the morning after the crash. Below, NTSB officials in the debris field.
Above: Rescue workers assemble on levee 67-C, the wreckage of the tail section in the distance. Below, a section of the right wing.
Special thanks to Trudy Smith