Eastern Airlines Flight 401 was on its way from New York to Miami on December 29th, 1972, with 13 crew and 163 passengers onboard. The captain had ordered that the landing gear be lowered in preparation for landing. However, the indicator light failed to show that the landing gear was locked down.

As the aircraft circled over the Florida Everglades, the flight crew were fixated on whether the landing gear was, in fact, down and the indicator light was faulty. The flight crew had not realized that the autopilot had been accidentally switched off and the aircraft was descending. By the time they did, it was already too late to recover.

What happened next

Flight attendants Mercedes Ruiz and Patricia McQuigg were working at the rear of the aircraft. Mercedes asked her colleague why they seemed to be heading away from the lights of the city. Patricia commented on the fact that it was the holiday season and maybe they’d earn some overtime. At the front of the aircraft, Sue Tebbs and Adrienne Hamilton were seated for landing. On duty that day was also Stephanie Stanich, Trudy Smith, Sharon Transue, Beverly Rapoza and Dorothy Warnock.

Beverly Rapoza had just returned from the cabin, collecting empty dishes and glasses, and was looking forward to some rest. She noticed that the engines sounded different, and the aircraft jolted. The plane then veered to the left and was thrown into darkness. A ball of fire erupted in the cabin and the aircraft cartwheeled and broke into pieces. Then there was silence.


Photo: NTSB


Beverly saw a sea of colors before being knocked out. She woke in darkness, still in her jump seat hanging to one side, choking on the acrid jet fuel fumes. She was six feet above the swamp but released her harness. Her face was burnt, but the coolness of the swamp seemed a relief. Beverly also injured her back and cut her foot but managed to crawl out of the swamp. She heard the cries of people and shouted, ‘Follow my voice, I am a flight attendant’ so that any surviving passengers could find her.

Sharon and Adrienne were injured and trapped in their jump seats. Mercedes was thrown from the aircraft, still trapped in her jump seat with injuries to her head and a broken pelvis. She found Beverly and commented ‘it’s a bad dream, we are going to wake up.’ Beverly replied, ‘No Mercy, we’re down.’ The scene was apocalyptic. People were screaming, and partially clothed dead bodies were face down in the water. Flight attendants Patricia and Stephanie tragically died in the crash, along with the flight crew.

Eastern Airlines 401

Photo: Bureau of Aircraft Accidents Archives


Beverly attended to the injured and calmed any survivors she found. Four hours after the accident, the coastguard and rescuers arrived, their efforts hampered by the difficult location and conditions. They were surprised to hear the sound of singing in the darkness. Beverly had gathered survivors together, seating them back to back to stay warm. She encouraged them to sing Christmas carols to keep their spirits up, a mark of courage and stoicism in the face of a dire situation. There were 67 survivors.

“These poor people were still my responsibility.”

– Beverly, Flight attendant on Flight 401

Lessons learned

From this accident, crew resource management was brought into pilot and cabin crew training to improve communication onboard. The flight attendants’ reports after the accident helped to change safety equipment onboard, including the use of shoulder harnesses on all jump seats, which was not the case at the time. Flashlights also became a standard piece of safety equipment at each jump seat.

Source: simpleflying.com

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