Eastern Air Lines Flight 401, 50 Years On

Eastern Air Lines Flight 401, 50 Years On

DALLAS  December 29, 2022, will mark a half-century since the fatal crash of Eastern Air Lines (EA) Flight 401. Operated by a Lockheed L-1011-385-1 TriStar (N310EA), the aircraft crashed into the Florida Everglades on a nighttime approach to Miami International Airport (MIA) on December 29, 1972. 101 out of the 176 occupants onboard the aircraft perished. 

With the 50th anniversary comes an opportunity for remembrance and reflection, to honor the lives lost and contemplate the tremendous improvements in aviation safety that followed the accident. 

In November 2022, Airways interviewed former flight attendants Beverly Raposa and Mercy Ruiz to understand their perspectives as survivors of the crash. It also offered the opportunity to discuss their efforts to commemorate victims prior to the December 2022 inauguration of the 50th Anniversary of Eastern Air Lines Flight 401 Memorial Monument.

The crew of Flight 401, taken while on the ground in MIA earlier the day of the crash. Back row: Pat Ghyssels, Trudy Smith, Adrianne Hamilton, Mercy Ruiz. Front row: Sue Tebbs, Dottie Warnock, Beverly Raposa, Stephanie Stanich. Laying on the coat rack, Patty George. Not shown, Sharon Transue as she was taking the photo. Photo: Sharon Transue courtesy of Official Eastern Airlines Flight 401 site.

“Gone But Never, Ever Forgotten”

Ruiz also described the anniversary as an opportunity to reflect on the lives lost in the crash. The monument, Ruiz said, represents the “thoughts, the prayers, and all the efforts involved in refusing to forget each and every one of the victims.” The names of each person who perished on Flight 401 will be engraved on the granite monument. Raposa emphasized that those who died that fateful day “are gone but never, ever forgotten.”

The developmental process of the monument represented both a commemoration of the Flight 401 victims and decades of collaboration among survivors. Ruiz said this began “many, many years back” with “efforts to commemorate the victims from us, the surviving crew members, people close to the victims, and all of the people from our community who really wanted to join us.” 

The former flight attendants described one gathering in the Everglades where airboats from around Florida turned up to help commemorate crash victims. Airboats represent a certain degree of sentimental value for survivors of Flight 401. The watercraft can easily traverse the swampy conditions of the Everglades and played an integral role in the rescue efforts that followed the crash. Raposa said that 103 airboats were scheduled to show up but that “two of the airboats would not start,” due to last-minute mechanical difficulties. Thus, Raposa continued, “It was 101 airboats that actually went out there, and we lost 101 souls.” In addition to the airboats, Ruiz described “freefalling white flowers” from small aircraft overhead.

The L1011 was approaching MIA when a faulty landing gear indicator light caused a go-around that subsequently led to the crash. Photo: Pablo Andrés Ortega Chávez (GFDL 1.2 or GFDL 1.2), via Wikimedia Commons.

Memorial Efforts

This commemorative event in the Everglades represented one of many, which also included smaller meetings among survivors and supporters. Raposa explained that over “many years, we worked, trying to put something together,” emphasizing the development of a tribute for Flight 401. However, she explained that “it was huge and funds were just not raised for that, and we talked about maybe three to four years ago about maybe doing something smaller.”

Nonetheless, at one point, efforts appeared to come to a standstill until the beginning of 2022, when Raposa, in a conference call, emphasized a desire for action ahead of the 50th anniversary. Raposa said a turning point came when supporter Shannon DeWitt offered to help coordinate fundraising and construction efforts for a monument, a pivot from the original idea of a tribute. Fundraising was a challenge, but Raposa said radio appearances and the support of former Eastern Air Lines employees bolstered efforts. The City of Miami Springs, Raposa emphasized, provided “intense, intense support” with the involvement of the mayor, the city manager, and the municipal public relations team. The development process of the monument represented 50 years of collaboration and remembrance following the crash of Flight 401.

EA401 flight path summary released in the official accident report. Photo: NTSB.

Learning from the Accident

While Flight 401 came with intense loss, Ruiz emphasized that it spurred many significant safety developments in the aviation industry, from the advent of cockpit resource management (CRM) to the adoption of ground proximity warning system (GPWS) devices in commercial airliners.

Ruiz said that the NTSB interviewed herself and other surviving crew members as part of the official accident report, each of whom agreed that flashlights represented one item they wished they possessed on the night of the crash.

After the Tristar crashed into the Everglades, Ruiz said that Raposa, “Left me laying down in a safe place, very cold and everything, but she made me as comfortable as possible. And then she started walking away, trying to help people. She came back and said, ‘Mercy, I can’t.’ She couldn’t see.”

A lack of flashlights amid the poor nighttime visibility in the Everglades impeded the ability of survivors to assist each other. “Had we had flashlights that night,” Ruiz continued, “every person that was ambulatory could have helped.” Flashlights eventually came to flight attendant crew stations ten years after the crash. 

Ruiz also described the adoption of shoulder straps on jump seats as another significant safety development that followed the crash of Flight 401. 

She went on to praise the efforts of Raposa, who sang Christmas carols to maintain morale among survivors as they waited for rescue.

Beverly Raposa pictured at the NTSB hearing into the crash. Photo: Official Eastern Airlines Flight 401 site.

Safety Professionals

Raposa added that Flight 401 has also been widely incorporated into safety training for pilots and flight attendants. According to DeWitt, the monument also represents how “through a terrible tragedy” in Flight 401, the industry eventually “put safety first in many ways.”

The pair also described takeaways for the public around aviation safety to go along with memorial efforts for Flight 401. 

Ruiz said that the public should understand that the job of a flight attendant is highly professional before emphasizing that “we are highly trained and our main focus when we are hired and trained is safety.” Ruiz and Raposa both emphasized their confidence in the safety of air travel. 

Ruiz continued her career as a flight attendant, flying for both EA and United (UA) in the years following Flight 401. Raposa said she has “flown for over 20 years for business,” saying she sleeps “like a baby every time” she flies. Raposa emphasized that she feels “safer up there.” Raposa concluded that 50 years beyond the crash, survivors and supporters still carry the victims of Flight 401 in their hearts.

The vast expanse of the Florida Everglades. Photo: Brent Foster / Airways

Memorial Dedication Event Notice

The 50th Anniversary of Eastern Air Lines Flight 401 Memorial Monument will be dedicated in a 1300 EST ceremony on December 29, 2022. The monument will be located on the grassy median of the 700 block of Curtis Parkway in Miami Springs, Florida, just opposite the Miami Springs Golf and Country Club driving range. The memorial monument will be accessible by foot and car, with parking and benches located nearby.

Featured Image: Eastern Airlines Lockheed L1011 N310EA, the airframe involved in flight 401. Photo: Jon Proctor Collection.

Aviation journalist and Daily Caller contributor who counts playing and teaching golf among his many hobbies, follow him on Twitter @realBrentFoster. Contact: brent@airwaysmag.com

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