- TOP PLAYERSOffensePABLO S. TORRE | August 20, 2012
- TAMPA BAY buccaneersENEMY lines WHAT A RIVAL COACH SAYSJune 28, 2012
- Faces in the CrowdJune 11, 2001
Crist�bal Col�n, the regional sales manager for Goya Food Products who had been helping with the Clementes' relief effort, drove the couple to the airport. They arrived around 4 p.m. Col�n took a good look at the DC-7 and did not like what he saw. The plane was so heavy that the landing wheels were squashed almost flat, and it was so unbalanced that the nose tire was almost off the ground. "I complained to Roberto and advised him that the aircraft was unsafe and improperly loaded," Col�n said later. As Vera would recall, "Roberto said, 'Don't worry. They know what they're doing.'" Vera said goodbye to her husband and went to meet a flight bringing friends from the U.S. in for the holidays.
At 9 p.m., according to FAA records, Rivera's DC-7, registration number N500AE, was cleared for Runway 7. As the aircraft reached the end of the runway, Antonio R�os, working for Eastern Airlines at Gate 12, heard several loud backfires about five seconds apart on the left wing. Delgado-Cintr�n, the mechanic, was near R�os in the Eastern cargo area. "I hear like ... three backfires ... changing engine noise and a very big explosion," he recalled. "Then silence."
The plane struggled into the air. It barely cleared the palm trees at the eastern edge of the airport, and then witnesses on the ground could no longer see it. In the air traffic tower, ground controller Gary Cleaveland noticed that the DC-7 was not gaining altitude as it flew about a mile past Punta Maldonado and then banked to the north and out over the ocean. By his estimate the plane was no more than 200 feet above water. It appeared to be descending.
The radio scratched. "Tower, this is five hundred alpha echo coming back around," Hill reported from the DC-7.
Cleaveland could not hear the transmission clearly. He said, "Five hundred ... uh ... alpha echo say again."
Nothing but silence. Traffic controller Dennis McHale, tracking the flight on radar, watched as N500AE curved north and then suddenly disappeared from the Brite One display screen.
When the Eastern Airlines flight from New York City had arrived in San Juan earlier that evening, Vera Clemente had been at the gate waiting for her friends Carolyn and Nevin Rauch and their daughters, Carol and Sharon. They all went out to dinner, and afterward they drove to the house of Vera's mother in Carolina, where the Clementes' sons were spending the night. The boys were asleep. Robertito had fussed before going to bed. "Abuela, why is Daddy leaving?" he had asked his grandmother. "That plane will crash."
Robertito had been anxious for days. One of the last things he had done at his parents' house the day before was to sneak into their bedroom and look in the little dresser drawer where his dad usually kept his plane tickets. Robertito often tried to hide the tickets in a futile effort to keep his father at home. This time there had been no ticket. Robertito had warned his father not to leave, and now his premonition was stronger. His grandmother told him not to be foolish, everything would be fine. But later she was overcome by an odd sensation. She went into the kitchen and cried. Something bad is happening, she thought. Melchor Clemente, Roberto's father, who lived nearby, was also haunted by dark feelings. He had had a bad dream about his son.
The radio was on at Vera's mother's house, but no one was listening. The room was full of people talking: Vera, her mother, her brother and his wife. The Rauches. Neighbors. A few times Vera thought she heard the radio announcer say the name Roberto Clemente, but he was in the news every day for his relief work. The telephone rang constantly. A close friend of Vera's called three times. She seemed tentative, evasive, asking how Vera was, then hanging up.
Then Roberto's niece Fafa called. She was crying. "Are you listening to the news?" she asked Vera. Something about a crash of an airplane going to Nicaragua. Vera's sister-in-law called the airport and got the first confirmation. It was a cargo plane with five people bound for Managua. Robertito, in the far bedroom, heard his mother's cry.