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35 years after jetliner crash, hero gets his due

Thirty-five years after Eastern Airlines Flight 401 plummeted into the Florida Everglades, airboat pilot Bud Marquis is finally being recognized for his actions that night that saved untold lives.
Robert Marquis
Bud Marquis, the airboater who was first on the scene when Eastern Airlines Flight 401 crashed in the Everglades on Dec. 29, 1972, holds a plaque he received at his home in Homestead, Fla., on Dec. 17.Lynne Sladky / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

An airboat speeding across the sawgrass and mud. A ringing in the ears when the engine was cut. Moaning. Screams for help. Desperate gasps at the water's surface. Helicopters in the distance. Christmas carols.

These are the sounds Bud Marquis heard in the black swamp that night.

Then, for more than three decades, there was mostly silence about the Dec. 29, 1972, crash of Eastern Airlines Flight 401 in the Everglades.

Investigators and reporters stopped calling. His airboat rusted in the yard. A rubber boot that had squished through swampwater and jet fuel deteriorated on the back porch, right where he took it off.

Marquis sat alone on his front porch in Homestead, on the Florida peninsula's southern tip. Acquaintances described a prickly old man in failing health. Sudden interest in the 35-year-old crash disturbed his quiet. He had saved lives, but he wasn't used to people asking about it.

Humble to this day
But admirers and some of the 77 people who survived the crash wanted to rebuild his airboat and make sure he finally heard thanks.

"I didn't feel it was any great, heroic thing," Marquis said. "I accept the award because they said I deserved it. I figure I didn't do anything that anybody else wouldn't have done."

Even today, as metropolitan Miami swallows more of the Everglades, getting to the Flight 401 crash site is a half-hour airboat ride over sharp sawgrass. No road stretches that deep into the alligator-infested swamp.

On that moonless night, Marquis was teaching a friend how to gig frogs from his airboat. Miami was just a distant pinpoint of light. All Marquis saw were the stars and the frogs' silver eyes before his headlamp.

Above him, Capt. Robert Loft, First Officer Albert Stockstill and Second Officer Donald Repo steered Flight 401 toward Miami International Airport after an uneventful flight from New York. The jumbo jet carried 163 passengers and 13 crew members.

Accidental bump led to tragedy
As they began their approach just after 11:30 p.m., the pilots informed the tower they would have to circle — the light indicating whether the plane's nose gear was down hadn't illuminated. Controllers gave their OK and told the crew to maintain an altitude of 2,000 feet.

The pilots engaged the autopilot, and Repo went below the cockpit to inspect the gear.

No one noticed when one of them bumped a steering column, disengaging the autopilot and sending Flight 401 into a slow descent. A half-second chime indicating a change in altitude went unnoticed.

About 20 miles west of the airport, the crew received permission to turn back and make another approach. It was then the pilots realized they were just feet above the Everglades. Seven seconds later, the plane's left wing dug into the swamp at 227 mph, sending it pinwheeling.

From 10 miles away, Marquis and his friend saw a fiery orange flash and speeded toward it.

Carols as a homing beacon
Marquis had recently turned to commercial frogging after years as a state game officer. He knew how to pick out island silhouettes in the dark, to feel the changing terrain beneath his boat. Fifteen minutes later, he reached a levee where he'd thought he'd seen the flash.

Marquis heard a voice: "I can't hold my head up anymore!" Jet fuel seeped into his boots when he jumped into the water to yank the man up. All around, he could see people still strapped in their seats, some turned face down in the water.

"I'm one person in the midst of all this," Marquis said. "I'm no doctor. I didn't know what to do."

Flight attendant Beverly Raposa was gathering survivors around her when she heard the airboat. She started singing Christmas carols, so rescuers would hear them.

"I knew they would find us," said Raposa, now 60 and living in Sunrise.

Helicopters swooped just south of the wreckage. The pilots couldn't see the site — the fire extinguished in the swamp. Marquis turned his headlamp skyward, waving them toward a nearby levee.

Fighting darkness to save lives
Petty Officer 2nd Class Don Schneck was aboard a Coast Guard helicopter that followed Marquis' light. He dashed to the airboat, carrying only a flashlight, a radio and a hatchet. Marquis ferried him deeper into the wreckage, as far as he could go without running over victims. Schneck waded out alone toward the cockpit; he was the last person to see Loft alive.

"I couldn't even see the crash. It was pitch dark," Schneck said from his Arkansas home.

Marquis pulled survivors from the water and ferried rescuers. At one point, he stopped near Raposa, who had found fellow flight attendant Mercedes "Mercy" Ruiz still strapped into her seat.

"We could see the tail of the airplane, white in the darkness. I said, 'It looks like a ghost,'" said Ruiz, who still bears a faint scar above her right eyebrow.

Ruiz had serious back and pelvic injuries, but she refused to be airlifted — she was done with flying. To calm her screams, the rescuers carried her to Marquis' airboat.

She begged Marquis not to let the alligators eat her. Marquis chuckled at the memory. Any gator would have been frightened away by the crash and the jet fuel's stench.

Crash mostly a thing of the past
Ninety-four passengers, the three pilots and two flight attendants were dead. Investigators marveled that anyone, let alone 77, survived.

Marquis, now age 78, greets visitors with a firm handshake and twinkling eyes. Hardly anyone has stopped by in 35 years to discuss the crash.

One survivor, certain Marquis carried him to safety, once showed up with a $1,000 check.

Eastern Airlines, mistakenly believing they'd hired Marquis for the rescue, sent him $125. Marquis went to the now-defunct airline's Miami headquarters to return it.

"I was angry about the form letter," Marquis said. "They thought they hired me. They should have gotten my name as the first one that was there."

News clippings Marquis had kept flew out his broken windows when Hurricane Andrew blew through Homestead in 1992, but he is lucky: the storm destroyed the five houses across the street.

Hurricane Wilma brought back the crash. Talking to a roofer fixing his home after the 2005 storm, their conversation turned to the crash. The roofer posted an online message in June 2006 about Marquis' plight to a Flight 401 crash forum.

‘I need to go back there’
Another forum for airboat enthusiasts picked up the discussion and rallied to raise funds for Marquis and restore his airboat. Meanwhile, separate efforts began to recognize the rescuers and bring the survivors together with victims' families.

Marquis met Ruiz, Raposa and other survivors for the first time at a Dec. 3 ceremony. The man he heard struggling to stay above water thanked him.

"Had it not been for Bud, there would not have been a grandpa for the children, there would not have been a grandpa to share the good times in life with," said David Kaplan, now 71 and living in Delray Beach.

On Saturday, 60 airboats will carry survivors and victims' relatives to the crash site. Marquis, in his reconditioned craft, will lead. The survivors hope to build a memorial near the site.

"Hopefully this will help the people that haven't been there" since 1972, Marquis said. "They can see what a vast area it is."

Passenger Ron Infantino will join him. He remembers the sound of Marquis' engine. He strained to hear his wife's voice, but she never answered his cries. She had died, 20 days after they married.

"I need to do it. I never was able to see my wife. I need to go back there," said Infantino, a 61-year-old Miami insurance agent. "I always said to myself, 'I don't know where to go.' I've always wanted some kind of recognition for the people who've lost their lives."