Tragic tale on video: Crash survivors' personal accounts

By LUISA YANEZ
...continued from part three

In the end, the crash was blamed by federal investigators on the crew's preoccupation with the landing gear light. The mechanically sound Lockheed L-1011 was left unmanned and literally flew into the ground in good weather.

Loft's autopsy revealed that he had a brain tumor. But investigators ruled that was not a factor in the crash.

"What you had was a situation where no one was flying the plane," said Eric Olson, a Barry University instructor and former air controller who has studied the cause of the 401 crash. "That would never happen today because of what was learned from that accident."

The crash spawned a song, books and two television movies in 1978: Crash and The Ghost of Flight 401.

December marks the 35th anniversary of the crash of Flight 401. Those who survived it and those who helped in the rescue remain connected by the events of that tragic day so many years ago. Today, a website dedicated to them, eastern401.googlepages.com is often a site for reunions.

And on Monday, Raposa, Ruiz, the Casados and others will take part in a ceremony honoring Marquis, the frog gigger who first reached the crash site.

Recognition for Marquis is long overdue, said Robert Dummett, a retired county firefighter, who organized the 2 p.m. ceremony at the Metro-Dade Firefighters' Memorial Bldg., 8000 NW 21st St. The event is open to the public.

"The county never properly thanked 'Bud' for what he did that night," Dummett said.

There is also interest in creating a memorial marker to honor those who died in the crash. One possibility: A sign to be added to the nearby ValuJet Crash Memorial, just off Tamiami Trail, with an inscription: "And 10 miles north of here ..."

For survivors, the crash has left scars -- physical and mental.

"I still wonder why we lived and all those other people died," said Coviello. Investigators found that those whose seats remained attached to the plane or where thrown clear of the wreckage were the lucky ones.

Coviello eventually moved to South Florida. She no longer travels on airplanes. "To be able to keep living, I had to have more children." She had Steve and Tony -- and now has two grandsons. One is named Nicky.

"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 and is now vice president of Generations Gold, a financial marketing firm in West Palm Beach.

She still has back pains from the injuries she suffered in the crash, but she says they don't slow her down.

"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.

Today, she still has the small, cream-colored suitcase she carried the night of the crash. Inside was a treasure: Her camera with the unprocessed film of shots of the crew taken that day.

"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."

Miami Herald staffer Sam Jacobs contributed to this report.