PART TWO: THE CRASH
"It felt like a wild rollercoaster ride..."
By LUISA YANEZ
...continued from Part One
Moments before the crash, Coviello had been trying to stir Nicky awake.
Then 25 and living in Brooklyn, Coviello was coming to Hialeah to help care for her mother, who had undergone surgery.
Her mother's illness during the holidays had been difficult, but she had still taken Nicky to have his picture taken with Santa at Korvette's department store.
Since the plane was not full, she set Nicky down to sleep in a row of two seats by the window. She settled in a seat across the aisle from him.
Suddenly there was a jerk to the left, as the wing sliced the ground. The lights went out and a ball of fire raced down the cabin.
The jet went into a horizontal cartwheel, slamming down and breaking into three sections, with each spinning across the slick terrain 18 miles west of MIA.
Passengers would later compare it to being caught in the swirl of a tornado or on a violent rollercoaster ride.
"The sound of the plane breaking apart and people screaming was awful," Coviello recalls.
Then came silence as everything had finally stopped moving.
"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," said Coviello, a legal assistant in Pembroke Pines. Nicky had been thrown by the impact.
There were lifeless bodies everywhere. Investigators later discovered that most of those killed had been sitting in the middle of the plane.
Frantically, Coviello began to feel her way in the darkness, searching for her son in muck and razor-sharp sawgrass.
There was life in all the death. Coviello touched something that felt like a bundle. It moved and she heard a crying sound. It was a baby boy -- not her son. She later learned the parents had been killed on impact; the baby survived.
Coviello cradled the baby in her arms as if the child were her own.
Coviello then heard Beverly Raposa's voice. "If you can hear me, come toward my voice. I'm a stewardess."
Coviello grabbed the baby and headed toward the voice. She gave Raposa the infant. Coviello kept looking for Nicky.
Nearby, the Casados were on a search of their own. Their infant daughter had flown out of her mother's arms and into the Everglades. The Casados began looking for her in the middle of the wreckage of a 25,000 pound airplane -- in pitch darkness. They were in knee-deep water, enough to drown a baby.
"I don't know if I was in shock or mother's instinct, but I walked right toward her."
In the middle of the mayhem, Xiomara Casado miraculously found her daughter. Little Christina, the youngest Flight 401 survivor, was found floating face up, cradled by luggage and debris, protected by a cage of mangled metal.
"She had a tiny scratch on her chest and one on her forehead that I did when I pulled her up. That was it," Xiomara Casado said.
Christina is now 35 and a biologist with Miami-Dade County.
"I had big brown eyes and my mother said she saw their reflection," she said.
Coviello didn't find Nicky that night. Rescuers recovered his body in the light of the following day. He had died on impact and had never heard his mother's cries.
She still holds on to her son's last moments of life.
"My left hand was on his body and I was saying: 'Honey, get up, Poppa -- that's what he called my father -- is waiting for us at the airport," Coviello said. "To this day, I can still feel my hand on him."
She has another cherished memory, too: the photograph taken just weeks before the crash. A smiling Nicky is sitting on Santa's lap.
Watch an animation of the last few minutes of the flight before the crash.
See the last photos taken of the plane before takeoff and the first recorded images after the accident.
Song about the Crash
Listen to a 30-second clip from Bob Welch's 1979 song about the Everglades tragedy.