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At 9:30 a.m. on Saturday, Dec. 30, Roberto and Vera were at the south ramp of San Juan International's cargo area as the Super Snoopy was being readied for its third flight to Nicaragua. Mountains of boxes were stacked on the tarmac, far more than could be loaded for this trip, and more supplies were on the way. Rivera saw an opportunity. "He came over and introduced himself to us," Vera Clemente recalled. "He told Roberto that he had a plane, a DC-7, for cargo. He said, 'I am available anytime.'"
Rivera then invited the Clementes to see his plane. The DC-7 was freshly painted. A mechanic dressed in a white uniform stood near the steps. Vera stayed below while Roberto climbed inside. It looked O.K. to him, although he knew little about airplanes. Rivera said that for $4,000 he would provide the crew, and they would wait in Nicaragua for as long as it took Clemente to do his business. Clemente and Rivera shook hands on the deal.
When the Clementes returned to their house in R�o Piedras, Rivera began scrounging, because he had no crew. A few hours later a DC-3 arrived from the Virgin Islands and taxied to a stop near Rivera's plane. The pilot, Jerry Hill, noticed the DC-7 as he was walking from his plane and said, "I used to fly one of these."
Again, Rivera seized the opportunity. "Hey," he said to Hill. "Want a job?"
VERA CLEMENTE stood in the kitchen fixing lunch. It was late Sunday morning, the last day of the year, and the house on the hill was silent. The boys were staying with her mother in Carolina. Roberto was in the bedroom, shades drawn tight, trying to rest before his trip to Nicaragua. The winter sky hung low and gray. In the stillness a song looped in Vera's mind. It was Tragedia de Viernes Santo, a popular ballad about a DC-4 that crashed into the ocean after taking off from San Juan on Good Friday 1952.
When lunch was ready, Vera went to fetch Roberto, who had, as usual, barely slept. Roberto had missed their eighth wedding anniversary, on Nov. 14, and then Thanksgiving because he had been managing in Nicaragua. Vera didn't ask him not to leave again, but the message was there as she cited all his absences. "Don't worry," Roberto said. "When you are healthy and you are happy, every day of life is the same."
"That's true," Vera said. He meant that every day of life was special. And so many times she had heard him repeat another mantra: If you have a chance to make life better for others and fail to do so, you are wasting your time on earth.
Rivera's new pilot, Hill, had returned to San Juan International at 6 a.m. after a hop to Miami and back. He had not slept and would need some rest before leaving for Managua, so he dozed off in the cabin of the DC-7 while it was being loaded with supplies. Rivera would be Hill's copilot, even though the sum of his experience in a DC-7 was the flight that had brought the plane out of Miami's Cockroach Corner and then the disastrous taxiing episode at San Juan International. Rivera had not bothered to check Hill's background--according to FAA records Hill, 47, was in jeopardy of losing his commercial license, facing a hearing on 13 violations he had committed between October 1971 and January '72.
In need of a flight engineer, Rivera recruited Francisco Mat�as, the second mechanic who had worked on the DC-7 after the taxiing fiasco. Mat�as did not have a flight engineer's certificate.
The DC-7 was already full--198 packages of rice, 312 cartons of evaporated milk, 320 cartons of beans, 70 cartons of vegetable oil, 90 cartons of luncheon meat and 60 cartons of cornmeal--when a small pickup truck arrived with a final load: 16 bags of sugar weighing 60 pounds apiece, plus more rice, beans, milk, toothpaste, toothbrushes and medical supplies. A ramp inspector for the airport police helped load the cargo with his supervisor. With no space remaining in storage, they stacked this load haphazardly in front of a steel mesh net near the bulkhead, then placed a large spare tire on top of the pile. No attention was paid to the plane's center of gravity. The DC-7 was not supposed to haul more than 40,000 pounds. The air cargo manifest that Rivera filed with the Bureau of Customs estimated the total weight at 39,288 pounds, but FAA officials later determined that the improperly loaded plane was 4,193 pounds over the maximum allowable load.