HOMESTEAD, Fla. — 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.
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.
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.
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.