History

Flight 401 Memorial Marks 50th Anniversary of Crash

Aerial image of the wreckage of Eastern Airlines Flight 401, which crashed in the Everglades in December 1972.
Aerial image of the wreckage of Eastern Airlines Flight 401, which crashed in the Everglades in December 1972. Photo by the National Transportation Safety Board
Beverly Raposa was a bubbly, 25-year-old flight attendant onboard Eastern Airlines Flight 401 from New York to Miami when the plane slammed into the Everglades at 225 miles per hour near midnight on December 29, 1972.

Of the 176 people aboard, 101 people died in the crash, which at the time marked one of the deadliest plane crashes in the nation's history.

"It was like being in a tornado," recounts Raposa of Fort Lauderdale. “Then everything was quiet.”

Fifty years later, she and other survivors will unveil a 2,385-pound granite monument near a Miami Springs golf course to honor the "101 souls that perished and the 75 survivors."

"So, you, in fact, were on that airplane, [Flight] 401?" Miami Springs City Councilman Bob Best asked Raposa at a June city council meeting before leaders unanimously approved the memorial's placement.

"Oh, yes, I rode that down," said the 5-foot-2 Raposa, now 75, a former Miami Springs resident. "The NTSB, when they studied it, said this crash is unsurvivable."

The plane was a state-of-the-art Lockheed L-1011-1 Tristar wide-body jet that lifted from New York's John F. Kennedy International Airport at 9:20 p.m. for a routine flight to Miami International Airport, according to a National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) crash report.

The captain, 55-year-old Robert Loft, was a DC-8 pilot who had two-and-a-half hours of training in the new L-1011 plane, the report states.

The flight diverted from its approach to the Miami airport because an onboard indicator did not signal the nose gear was locked in the down position.
Photo by the Federal Aviation Administration

"Ah, tower, this is Eastern, ah, 401. It looks like we're gonna have to circle. We don't have a light on our nose gear yet,” Loft said. 

The aircraft was advised by air traffic control to climb 2,000 feet as Loft directed the first officer to engage the autopilot.

"Eastern, ah 401, how are things coming out there?"

"We did something to the altitude," the first officer said.

"Hey, what's happening here?" said Loft at 11:42 p.m., seconds before flight tower operators heard a click and six beeps.

Nicknamed the “Whisperliner” for its smooth and quiet ride, the plane's engines and wings tore off and did end-to-end cartwheels, leaving divots in the earth.

Fires crackled in the jet-fuel-coated sawgrass 18 miles west of Miami International Airport, where a quarter-mile swath of mangroves was strewn with food trays, carry-on bags, and bodies.
click to enlarge
A monument is scheduled to be unveiled to commemorate the 1972 crash of Eastern Airlines Flight 401.
Photo by City of Miami Springs
Tales of ghost sightings after the crash site led to a book deal and a 1978 made-for-television movie called The Ghost of Flight 401, starring Ernest Borgnine. Prior to Halloween this year, a Travel Channel special aired about a team who ventured into the Everglades to contact the flight victims’ ghosts and “find out what really happened.”

Government investigators took a less-supernatural approach and cited four possible causes for the crash: subtle incapacitation of the pilot, issues with auto-flight system operation, flight crew training lapses, and flight crew distractions.

A medical examiner's report revealed that Captain Loft had a tumor that “displaced and thinned the adjacent right occipital lobe of the brain.” (The occipital lobe is primarily responsible for visual processing.)

Raposa tells New Times that she got the idea for a monument from Miami Herald reporter Luisa Yanez when she covered Flight 401’s 37th anniversary.

"People from Denver and New York have already told me they are flying here, and lots of Eastern people from all over Florida and beyond have said they will be attending," wrote Raposa in an email to city leaders.

According to the City of Miami Springs, the Eastern Airlines Flight 401 Memorial Group has been raising funds for the project, which was originally estimated to cost about $600,000. The newest design for the monument is considerably less expensive, according to Raposa.

The memorial will be located where a runway once ran through the middle of the city.

The public is invited to the monument unveiling at 1 p.m. on December 29, near the 700 block of Curtiss Parkway.

Correction published 3:15 p.m. 11/10/2022: The article was updated to correct Raposa's age and clarify that the $600,000 memorial cost listed on the City of Miami Springs' website applied to a prior incarnation of the project.
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Freelancer Theo Karantsalis is a San Francisco native who lovingly served Miami’s Black community for many years as an offbeat librarian. He speaks softly and carries a big pen.
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