HAVANA — Carlos Cremata skipped his high school study group and went back to his dorm room early, feeling achy with the flu. Around midnight, his friends dragged him out of bed. He was told that the principal was looking for him — clearly a bad omen for the 16-year old boy.
“I remember my shock to see my dad’s best friend in the principal’s office,” recalled Cremata. “His face was completely shattered. He told me that my dad’s plane had crashed. I was stunned. I didn’t even know my dad planned to fly that day.”
He was right. The elder Cremata mostly sat behind a desk at Cubana Airlines. His job, sketching out new routes for the commercial carrier, sometimes sent him out into the field, but he mostly put ideas down on paper.
It was Wednesday Oct. 6, 1976, and, at the last minute, Cremata’s father filled in for a friend who needed the day off to attend to some personal business. He also hoped to do some surprise shopping for his wife and three sons while in the Caribbean. He had promised his teenagers each a pair of platform shoes, like ones John Travolta would wear the following year in “Saturday Night Fever.”
That morning Cubana Flight 455 went island-hopping as it made its way back to Havana.
The first stop was Guyana, where the DC-8 picked up half a dozen local students who had won scholarships to a Cuban medical school, along with the 22-year old wife of a Guyanese diplomat, returning to her husband after giving birth to their son two months earlier.
The flight then stopped in Trinidad to board 24 young Cuban fencers, eager to get home to show off their medals. Just the week before, the junior squad, fighting as if their lives depended on it, swept all the gold at a Central American fencing championship.
The plane was then scheduled to stop in Jamaica before making its final descent in Havana. Pilot Wilfredo Perez never got that far. Some eight minutes after takeoff, the first bomb exploded.
“We have an explosion on board,” co-pilot Miguel Espinosa told the Barbados Seawell control tower at 12:23 p.m. “We’re descending fast. We have a fire on board.”
Four minutes later the control tower heard Espinosa shout, “Close the door! Close the door!” as black smoke poured from a section of the wing.
As Perez released the gear and prepared for landing, a second bomb exploded in the toilet, damaging the rear fuselage. Five miles from Seawell, Flight 455 crashed into the Caribbean, instantly killing all 73 people aboard.
But when 16-year-old Cremata arrived home, someone had started the rumor that seven people had survived.
“I knew my father was one of them, so my one priority was to get home and tell my mother not to lose hope. I was furious when I saw the vigil in front of my house. It was 2 a.m., but the whole neighborhood was awake. I yelled at them to go home, that my father was fine and would be walking through the door any minute.”
That hope haunted the son for years. “What made things worse was that we were never able to bury my father,” Cremata said. Between the fire and the force of the impact, rescuers failed to retrieve any bodies from the wreckage — just a scattering of body parts.
It also took years to stop looking to avenge his father’s death.
“At first I felt hatred for those responsible,” admits Cremata, who now runs a children’ s theater group, La Colemenita, in Havana. “But then my country, my people taught me that hatred leads to vengeance, which just leads to more hatred — first by me, then by my children, and my grandchildren. I learned to demand justice instead of vengeance.”
Still waiting for justice
Almost 29 years later, Cremata and the other families are still waiting.
Four men in 1976 were arrested and jailed for the crime.
Hernan Ricardo and Freddy Lugo, two Venezuelan secret police agents with ties to a terrorist cell of Cuban exiles based in Caracas, Venezuela, boarded Flight 455 in Trinidad and planted the two bombs. For that, they received 20-year sentences, but they were released in October 1993 after serving half their terms.
Two other men, Cuban-born Orlando Bosch and Luis Posada, were believed to be the masterminds behind the bombing but were never found guilty by a Venezuelan court.
Amid charges of bribery and rigged verdicts, Bosch was released after two acquittals and moved to Miami, Fla. In 1989 he was granted political asylum by President George H.W. Bush, despite the objections of the attorney general.
The last man in this drama, Luis Posada, is now seeking the same.
Alleged bomber seeking asylum in U.S.
Posada, who reportedly entered the United States illegally more than a month ago and now resides in an undisclosed location in an upscale Miami neighborhood, has hired a Miami attorney to represent his appeal.
Posada, though, technically remains a fugitive from justice. In 1985, with help from corrupt prison guards, Posada walked out of a Caracas jail while prosecutors appealed his acquittal. The Venezuelan Supreme Court is on the verge of ordering his extradition.
While Posada and Bosch have repeatedly denied involvement in the Barbados airline bombing, Posada has admitted to organizing the 1997 Havana hotel and restaurant bombings that killed Fabio di Celmo, an Italian tourist, and wounded dozens more.
In an interview with the New York Times, an unremorseful Posada professed responsibility, saying di Celma “was in the wrong place at the wrong time.”
The Bush administration has yet to issue a substantial comment on Posada’s asylum request.
Meanwhile the families of the victims of Flight 455 are disturbed by the thought that Posada’s bid for U.S. asylum could be granted.
“This makes everything worse,” said Cremata. “It’s inconceivable.”
Mary Murray is an NBC News producer based in Havana.