Eastern Flight 401: A survivor's story

Before ValuJet there was Eastern Flight 401.

It happened 40 years ago today on a cold dark night in the Everglades, a brand new "Whisperliner" jumbo jet crashed in the swamp, killing 101. Seventy five people survived. One of them was Ron Infantino, an Air Force veteran in Vietnam and aviation aficianado. He was flying from New York that night with his bride of 20 days, Lilly.   

"It was beautiful," said Infantino said of the jet. "Brand new, spacious, the seating was gorgeous, there was a beautiful lounge in the back." 

Shortly before the scheduled landing at about 11:30 that night, Lilly went to the restroom and when she came back they switched seats. Then he noticed that the pilot did a fly-by the airport. The lights of Miami vanished behind them. 

"It went completely dark so I knew we were doing another go-round, not knowing what was going on," he said.

What none of the passengers in the plane knew was that the light for the nose gear wasn't working. Flight Capt. Bob Loft decided to try to troubleshoot and fix the light before landing and put the plane on autopilot. From there a series of seemingly small mistakes and oversights led to the epic crash. The bottom line was that the pilot and crew became so concerned about a burnt-out lightbulb that they neglected to notice the altitude dropping. And because it was pitch dark there were no visual cues outside to tell them they were about to hit the swamp.

When an air traffic controller at MIA noticed they were flying at 900 feet when they should have been at 2000, he contacted the cockpit and asked, "How are things coming along out there?" The answer was fine, but unfortunately the controller didn't specifically mention the altitude so no one was the wiser. Just before the plane hit, First Officer Albert Stockstill noticed the low altitude and told Loft about it. Both would die in the crash.

"We did something to the altitude," he said.

"What?" asked Loft.

"We're still at 2,000 feet, right?" said Stockstill. 

"Hey, what's happening here?" asked Loft.

Those were the last words recovered from the flight voice recorder. At that moment Infantino was resting in his seat.

"I was leaning back, my eyes half closed, and all the sudden I hear the engines go to full power," he said. "They were screaming, next thing I knew it, the overhead luggage was flying all over the place and the lights were going on and off like crazy. It was like a tornado. Literally you were inside a tornado."

The plane, which was in an angled turn at the time, struck the swamp and began to flip, breaking apart and spitting the passengers to the ground.

"I remember hitting, I woke up and I was in a sitting position water up to my chin, no clothes on, everything was stripped right off me except the rims of my socks," said Infantino. "I said, 'Oh my god we crashed, we crashed.' And then it was complete silence ... and I thought I was the only one alive."

He couldn't move. Naked in the cold water, surrounded by tall sawgrass, he heard an airboat. He didn't know it, but it was Robert "Bud" Marquis, who was out frog-gigging with a friend. Marquis would work tirelessly throughout the night and the next day rescuing people. But no one could hear Infantino yelling for help.

"I hear this voice scream out in the Everglades," he said. "She yelled, 'Don't anybody light any matches in the Everglades,' which was smart because of all the jet fuel."

He would later learn the voice came from flight attendant Beverly Raposa, who would later lead survivors in Christmas carols to try to keep their spirits up in the cold night. She and Marquis would be remembered as two of the heroes from that night.

Infantino heard that, but nobody could hear him. "It was almost five hours before they even found me, five hours in the same spot, the same spot, I couldn't move, I couldn't get up," he said. "It was so cold I can't describe it."

At one point he noticed that his right arm didn't seem right.

"Where's my right arm, why's my right arm so far away from my body? I reach over and all the sudden my fingers go inside of my bicep," he said. "And it was just hanging off. My arm was hanging there. So I'll never forget it, I brought it to my chest and held it."

During the five hours, a female passenger came up to him and began to walk away. 

"I said, 'Please don't leave me here alone, I'm so cold,'" he remembers pleading with her. "She said, 'I have to find my family, but here's my sweater.' I put the sweater around me under the water. It was all wet, but it felt good just to have something on me."

Finally some rescuers found him.

"My god, you're here, please don't leave me," he remembers telling them. 

"We got you," they said.

The rescuers, Coast Guard members and Miami-Dade fire fighters and police officers, worked throughout the night finding survivors. 

"They were incredible," says Infantino. "I just remember their heavy breathing. They were exhausted. They were working all night with gear on the boots in the swamp and the mud."

The survivors were taken to a narrow levee where helicopters took them to hospitals. 

"They put me in a helicopter and I'll never forget they gave me a warm blanket," he said. "It felt so good." 

But he was worried about Lilly. "I asked, 'Where's my wife?' and they said, 'I'm sorry, sir, we don't know.'"

In the hospital he learned just how bad off he was. His knee was badly dislocated, his shin able to swivel in any direction. He had bad sawgrass cuts all over his face. His arm was hanging by a thread; the cold swamp water may have saved his life by coagulating the blood.

"The priest came over and asked me what my religion was," he remembers. "I asked why he wanted to know that and I said Catholic. Then he gave me last rites. Wow, what an experience that was. Then I knew how bad I was."

The swamp water that may have saved him also caused him to get gangrene, causing it to swell to three times its normal size and smell "like rotten eggs." But doctors were able to reattach his arm. Two days into recovery his dad came into his hospital room.

"He said they found Lilly's body," he said. "The autopsy was drowning. My first love ... I survived, she didn't. Why? Was it because we switched seats? I don't think so ... we have no control over our destiny."

All of the bodies were recovered, 99 perished that night, two more would die from their injuries. Infantino and other survivors are holding a memorial service today at 4 p.m. at the site of the Valujet Flight 592 memorial, on the Tamiami Trail, 12 miles west of Krome Avenue. It is open to the public.

While the crash has inspired two feature-length movies and numerous documentaries and training films, there is no permanent memorial for Eastern Flight 401. Infantino and other survivors have for years tried to create one but have been unable to raise the money needed to build it.

"We don't have a home of our own to call our own, 401 doesn't," he said. "We would love to have a home or memorial for ourselves ... we can't get anybody to help us."

Today Infantino will present two wreaths, one for Flight 401 and the other for Valujet, the 1996 Everglades crash that killed all 110 on board.

"I got a call from a mother whose son was killed on Valujet 592 and she said how much she appreciates us having a wreath for them," said Infantino, choking up. "On the wreath I put, 'To our fellow brothers and sisters, in loving memory.' I said, 'I know what you're going through because I lost somebody too.' And she knows what I went through, so you have that same bonding with one another." 

He said 401 needs a memorial not only for those who died but for its importance in airline safety. And he said the disaster taught him something about life.

"The crew was so preoccupied with a 50-cent life bulb, they missed the whole picture," he said. "Same thing in our lives. We get so tied up in the mundane things in life, the small stuff, we waste all our energies on that instead of concentrating on the major things. I try to do that but I'm human so it doesn't always work out."

He says he thinks about the crash every day and it has defined the way he looks at life.

"I number things one to ten in my life, ten's the plane crash," he says. "Sso if I'm late for an appointment or I'm stuck in traffic ... I say, 'Calm down, Ron, what number is this? It's certainly not a ten. It helps me put life in perspective, you see."

But today, for Infantino, is about Lilly and the other lost lives.

"I'll be reading names," he said, "and after each name a candle will be lit until 101 candles are lit."