PART ONE: THE FLIGHT
No warning of mayhem to come with MIA in sight
By LUISA YANEZ
The tragic night began routinely enough. Bound for Miami, Flight 401 took off from New York's JKF airport at 9:20 p.m.
In the cockpit: Capt. Robert Loft, 55; First Officer Albert Stockstill, 39; Second Officer Donald Repo, 51, all of Miami-Dade.
Loft, an Eastern employee since 1951 when Eddie Rickenbacker was his boss, spent the morning doing yard work before heading to MIA.
The flight had 163 passengers and 13 crew members, with 50 empty seats.
Raposa and Ruiz, along with some of the other flight attendants, slipped aboard at the last minute, arriving late to New York from a connecting flight.
"Can you believe we actually ran to get on that plane?" said Raposa, now 60, of Sunrise.
The passengers included Marc Leshay, 21, a University of Miami student headed back to class following the holiday break. Ethel Jackson, 64, a housekeeper from Liberty City who brought her white uniform in a carry-on bag. Rose Kashman, 57, of New York, who wore her favorite dark mink coat. And Fara Infantino, a secretary at the Lindsey Hopkins Technical Educational Center, who had married 20 days earlier.
All would be dead in two hours and 42 minutes.
Also aboard: Jan Minguzzi Coviello and her 4-year-old son, Nicky. They took their seats in Row 35.
The Casados family -- Gustavo and Xiomara of South Miami, who then lived in New York -- made their way to Row 16. The Cuban-born accountant and his wife were the proud new parents of a 2-month old daughter Christina. The baby wore a knitted pink dress and slept in her mother's arms. The couple was coming to introduce their newborn to relatives.
The flight was uneventful -- until it neared Miami International Airport.
Loft ordered the landing gear lowered, but an indicator light failed to confirm it was down and locked. The cockpit radioed the tower. "It looks like we're gonna have to circle; we don't have a light on yet."
The jet then circled west over the Everglades at 2,000 feet as the cockpit crew spent the next seven minutes fixated on whether the problem was a faulty $12 bulb or failed landing gear.
The assumption is that during the distraction, the captain or the first officer accidentally bumped the autopilot trottles, swtching it off, investigators said.
The Lockheed L-1011 began a stealth descent. No one in the cockpit noticed. In the cabin, all readied to land.
Ruiz, seated facing the back of the plane, walked over to flight attendant Pat Ghyssels and wondered why the aircraft was flying away from the city lights.
"She said to me: 'Oh, Mercy, stop complaining. It's the holidays. If we're a little late, it's overtime,'‚" Ruiz said.
Ghyssels, 25, a graduate of Miami Norland Senior High, would be dead within minutes.
To Raposa, sitting in the rear right side jump seat, the engines felt too revved up for final approach.
At 11:41 p.m., Capt. Loft, satisfied the bulb was the culprit, advised the tower they were coming in and returned his attention to flying the plane. But it was too late.
"We did something to the altitude," First Officer Stockstill warned.
"Hey, what's happening here?" Loft said as he frantically pulled up while banking to the left in a futile attempt to rescue Flight 401.
At the Miami tower, the jumbo jet disappeared from the controller's radar screen at 11:42 p.m.
Watch an animation of the last few minutes of the flight before the crash.
Song about the Crash
Listen to a 30-second clip from Bob Welch's 1979 song about the Everglades tragedy.