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This Day in History: Eastern Airlines Flight 401

On this day in 1972, Eastern Airlines Flight 401 crashes in the Everglades. The jumbo jet had been making a late evening flight from New York to Miami. Today’s story is one of tragedy, of course, but it’s also one of heroism and bravery. Amazingly, 75 of the 176 passengers and crew aboard Flight 401 survived.

The tragedy would never have occurred but for a single, burnt-out light bulb.

Eastern Air Lines tail number N310EA is shown before its crash of December 29, 1972. The plane was a Lockheed L-1011 TriStar.

This particular bulb was supposed to let the pilots know that their landing gear was down. Yet as Flight 401 approached Miami International Airport, the bulb failed to come on. Captain Bob Loft and First Officer Bert Stockstill returned to an altitude of 2,000 feet, then put the plane on autopilot while they investigated.

Was the light bulb burnt out or was the landing gear stuck?

Unfortunately, one of the pilots accidentally bumped into the control column as they messed with the light bulb. The autopilot was switched back off, but no one realized it. The plane began a slow, unnoticed descent. A low-altitude warning chime went off near Second Officer Don Repo’s position, but Repo had gone below to see if he could lay eyes on the landing gear. No one heard the chime.

The pilots seemed to have realized what happened mere seconds before the crash. “We did something to the altitude,” Stockstill was hearing saying. “We’re still at two thousand, right?” “Hey, what’s happening here?” Loft responded, but it was too late.

The plane was traveling at more than 200 mph when one wing hit the ground. The aircraft broke apart as it cartwheeled across the wetlands.

Some were killed instantly, while others were buffered by the marshy ground and barely suffered a scratch. Several people found themselves trapped under wreckage. A few even had their clothes blown off.

“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,” survivor Jan Coviello said. Her four-year-old son, Nicky, was nowhere in sight.

Nearby, another survivor was having a similar experience. “The impact was, of course, shocking,” said survivor Gustavo Casado. “The plane started shaking and falling apart. There was a splash of water over my face.” He’d been sitting next to his wife and infant daughter, but the impact had torn the baby from her mother’s arms.

Mrs. Casada found her daughter nearby. The baby was floating face up, cradled by wreckage. “I don’t know if I was in a mother’s instinct, but I made my way right to her,” she later said.

Coviello was not so fortunate with Nicky. His remains were recovered the next day.

Robert “Bud” Marquis, a former wildlife officer, was first on the scene because he’d been frog hunting nearby. He heard someone yell, “I can’t hold my head up anymore!” and he rushed to help those trapped under water.

The Everglades were dark without the lights of the big city. Fortunately, the light on Marquis’s helmet helped rescue helicopters find the wreckage. Coast Guard Petty Officer 2nd Class Don Schneck was grateful. “I couldn’t even see the crash. It was pitch dark,” he said.

Nearby, flight attendant Beverly Raposa knew that they’d been found, despite the darkness, because she’d heard the engines on Marquis’s airboat. She worked to keep survivors around her calm by leading several rounds of Christmas carols.

Rescue efforts went on for hours, but 75 survivors had been pulled from the wreckage by morning.

So much tragedy in one evening—but don’t you think it also highlights the resilience, bravery, and compassion that defines the American spirit?

God bless this great country of ours.

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