By Chuck Strouse
By Scott Fishman
By Terrence McCoy
By Ryan Yousefi
By Ciara LaVelle, Kat Bein, Carolina Del Busto, and Liz Tracy
By Pepe Billete
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MIAMI -- In the most tragic event of the new millennium, more than 2500 people were killed when an American Airlines jumbo jet crashed into a Miami concert arena during a New Year's Eve celebration featuring singer Gloria Estefan. Rescue workers continued to dig through the rubble searching for survivors as investigators from the National Transportation Safety Board arrived on the scene to begin the arduous task of trying to determine a cause.
"This is an awful, awful tragedy," Miami-Dade Mayor Alex Penelas said during a press conference, the first of 45 briefings the mayor held during an eight-hour period. "I'm sorry," he added, tears welling up in his eyes. "I just don't feel very sexy right now."
Federal Aviation Administration officials say Flight 1195, a Boeing 767 en route from Los Angeles, was on its final approach into Miami International Airport when it inexplicably veered off course and headed toward downtown Miami. "The tower had the jumbo on radar and everything seemed fine," said Jess Walter, a spokesman for MIA. "Then, just as it turned midnight, the plane suddenly banked, picked up speed, and flew right into the American Airlines Arena. Is that tragically ironic?"
Sources say NTSB officials believe that at midnight all computers at Miami International Airport shut down for a fraction of a second, losing contact with all inbound flights. For the majority of planes, the glitch presented no problem. But the onboard computer for Flight 1195 immediately began searching for an alternate signal and instantly locked on to the American Airlines Arena, which recently unveiled a new satellite dish that will broadcast all home games for the Miami Heat basketball team to American Airline planes around the world.
"Apparently it locked on to the signal from the satellite dish like it was a homing beacon," said an NTSB official. "All controls were frozen. There was nothing the pilots could do to stop the plane. And the worst part, the plane's audio channels were filled with the music coming from the arena concert. The last thing every passenger on that plane heard was Gloria Estefan singing, 'Come on baby do that conga.'"
Among the survivors was Miami Heat coach Pat Riley, who was found dazed and wandering along Biscayne Boulevard north of the Omni, mumbling to himself: "You can have this, or you can have this." Police initially believed Riley was a male prostitute, but county court Judge Reginald Richardson and football star Eugene Robinson were in the area and recognized the coach.
ESTEFAN AND ELIAN MISSING
Pop Singer and Poster Boy Feared Dead
By Thomas Mayrose
Washington PostStaff Writer
January 4, 2000
MIAMI -- The rhythm may finally have gotten her.
Gloria Estefan, Miami's favorite daughter, remained missing yesterday, and rescue workers on the scene privately concede there is little hope the singing sensation will be found alive. "At this point we would need a miracle," said one firefighter.
Survivors say that at the time the plane slammed into the arena, Estefan was onstage dancing with Elian Gonzalez, the six-year-old boy in the midst of an international tug of war. Gonzalez is still missing and presumed dead. Exile groups in Miami suggested the plane crash may have been orchestrated by Fidel Castro, but they offered no proof.
Plans for a memorial to honor Estefan, Elian, and the 2897 others who died already are being discussed. Florida Marlins owner John Henry, saying he was deeply moved by the tragedy, proposed building a monument to the dead on the site of the devastation. "It might look like a 45,000-seat baseball stadium," Henry said when he unveiled preliminary designs for the shrine. "But it's not. If you look closely, all of the bases have black armbands around them.
CUBAN BOY FOUND ALIVE
Gloria Estefan Not So Lucky
By Thomas Mayrose
Washington PostStaff Writer
January 7, 2000
MIAMI -- Call him the Miracle Child.
Buried alive for more than six days, Elian Gonzalez, the six-year-old boy who has been the focus of an international custody dispute between Cuba and the United States, was rescued yesterday. Upon emerging from the rubble, family members embraced him, held a brief news conference, and then whisked him away to the Miami Seaquarium, where the scrappy tyke was strapped to the back of a killer whale.
"That is the difference between children here in the United States and those living under repression in Cuba," offered Armando Gutierrez, a spokesman for the boy's family. "In Cuba when a child is rescued after being buried alive for nearly a week, they have nothing to do. Here they can ride a whale, or become the youngest driver in a demolition derby, or bungee jump from the top of the Freedom Tower. All of which Elian will do in the coming days. That's what makes this country great, and that's why Elian's mom sacrificed her life getting her son to America."
The joy surrounding the discovery of the child quickly was replaced by anguish, however, as rescue workers also found the remains of pop singer Gloria Estefan, who had been trapped alongside young Elian. The Latin diva's remains were removed by local firefighters, who passed her body from one to another along a makeshift conga line quickly established in her honor.
Officials from the Miami-Dade County Medical Examiner's Office said Ms. Estefan died within minutes of the plane striking the arena. And though she did not suffer, it does appear that Elian may have "sampled" the songstress in order to survive.
"The kid was hungry," explained Gutierrez. "He waited as long as he could. He tried to eat one of the drummers from the band but found him a bit gamy. In the end he had no choice. It was either eat Gloria or die. Personally I blame Castro."
U.S. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen agreed. "If young Elian had had enough food to eat while he was being raised in Cuba, then he might not have been so hungry when the arena collapsed," the congresswoman declared. "Castro turned that child into a cannibal, not the United States. And we must never lose sight of that."
During a news conference, Demetrio Perez, a member of the Miami-Dade County School Board, said that if Elian attends one of his private schools, and the building should ever collapse, he'd be honored if Elian would eat him. Seeking to prove his point, Perez slathered his arm with turkey fat and thrust it into the mouth of a hungry rottweiller, which gnawed on it for several minutes.
ELIAN HIJACKS PLANE
"Get Me the Hell Out of Here"
March 17, 2000
MIAMI (Reuters) -- Elian Gonzalez commandeered an American Airlines plane at gunpoint late this evening and demanded to be returned to Cuba. The six-year-old boy had been given several loaded guns during a photo opportunity earlier in the day with National Rifle Association president Charlton Heston, and brandished one of them during a tour of Miami International Airport.
The MIA visit was supposed to be a "time for healing," according to Elian's Miami relatives. As photographers flashed away, the president of American Airlines showed Elian the cockpit of a Boeing 767. "This is the same sort of plane that crashed and buried you alive for nearly a week," the airline official explained to Elian through a translator. "Pretty neat, huh?"
Elian, however, became noticeably agitated. He then screamed, pulled out a .357 Magnum, held it to the pilot's head, and declared, in Spanish: "You people are nuts. Get me the hell out of here!" Within minutes the plane was in the air and bound for Havana.
"I'm afraid this only strengthens our fears that young Elian may have been a Castro agent all along," said Ninoska Perez Castellon, a spokeswoman for the Cuban American National Foundation. "What a shame."