Much has changed since Avianca Flight 52 ran out of fuel and crash-landed onto a wooded Cove Neck hillside, claiming 73 lives, 20 years ago this week. Or nothing at all has changed, depending on who you ask.
Of the 85 survivors, the 10 children who lived to tell the tale are now fully grown. The lawsuits have long since been settled. Rules enacted by the Federal Aviation Administration to prevent miscommunications between air traffic controllers and international flight pilots regarding fuel emergencies have since been eclipsed by strict post-9/11 security regulations. The two drug mules who were found to be smuggling cocaine on the flight from Bogata, Colombia to John F. Kennedy International Airport have finished their prison sentences and were deported. Although the crash site is still evident on remote Tennis Court Road, foliage has grown back and neighbors still deal with relentless stray gawkers.
Yet for the survivors, countless rescue workers and the closest residents in the exclusive North Shore community—those most affected by the Jan. 25, 1990 crash—it still feels like it happened yesterday.
“I thought about it every day,” Ralph Longo, a Nassau County Police EMT, said Sunday at a reunion for survivors and first responders in the basement of St. Dominic’s Roman Catholic Church in Oyster Bay, as he embraced Jessica Vasquez, who was 2 and a half years old when he pulled her from the airliner’s wreckage.
“I always wanted to know what happened,” said Vasquez, now 23, married and living in Queens, as she wiped away tears and the two caught up for the first time in more than a decade. The events that have shaped her life—she is now a medical assistant and has a strong bond with her mother, who is also a survivor—remains as foggy in her mind as the air on that ill-fated Thursday night.
“After I brought her out I held her in my arms and kept her with me,” said Longo, who was among the first responders who struggled to provide treatment for the victims on the winding private road that was perilously clogged with traffic. Apart from healing the trauma emergency workers, witnesses and surviving casualties endured, the passage of time has allowed some to see how much worse it could have been.
“Miracle on the Hudson, we call this the Miracle on the Hill,” the Rev. Kevin M. Smith said in his sermon at St. Dominic’s prior to the reunion, referring to US Airways Flight 1549, which successfully landed in the Hudson River last year, and the fact that no one on the ground was killed in the Avianca crash.
The Village of Cove Neck, with a population of about 300, sits on a nearly 6,000-foot-wide peninsula jutting into Cold Spring Harbor across from Centre Island. Had the engines flamed out at a different time, the plane could have plunged into the Long Island Sound, fallen onto one of the North Shore’s downtown areas or struck any number of homes.
Look no further than American Airlines Flight 587, which claimed the lives of all 260 on board and five people on the ground in the Belle Harbor section of Queens—an even thinner peninsula of Long Island—on Nov. 12, 2001, for a local example of how devastating airline tragedies can get.
“We consider ourselves blessed and lucky,” says Nestor Zarate, 67, a former spokesman for Flight 52’s survivors. “Sure, your chances are very slim that you’ll survive an air crash, but what if you’re lucky?”
Zarate, a former Manhattan resident who summered on the East End, now lives in Miami and will release a book about the crash next month that will include stories from other survivors as well. 20 Minutes Before and 20 Years Later: The Complete Story of Avianca Flight 52 will first be printed in Spanish and an English translation will follow soon after.
“There’s a lot more to this crash than meets the eye,” says Zarate, who still suffers some lingering pain from the injuries he endured. “A big question in my mind is: Why did that plane ever take off?” he asks, referring to the airline’s safety record. “I’m not able to answer that because the pilot died and you can’t reconstruct the circumstances.”
In hindsight, it appears there is still much to be learned from this disaster—and much to be thankful for.
Major Local Ailine Disasters:
May 30, 1946: United Airlines Flight 521 took off from LaGuardia Airport and crashed shortly after, bursting into flames, killing 37.
Feb. 1, 1957: Northeast Airline Flight 823 took off from LaGuardia and crashed on Rikers Island, killing 20. Seventy-four on board survived.
Feb. 3, 1959: American Airlines Flight 230 crashed into the East River, killing 65. Eight survived.
Dec. 16, 1960: TWA Flight 266 from Dayton, Ohio, collided with United Flight 825 from Chicago over Staten Island. The TWA jet fell to the ground immediately. The United jet crashed in Brooklyn. Six people on the ground died, as did all 128 people aboard the planes.
March 1, 1962: American Airlines Flight 1 crashed into Jamaica Bay after taking off from Idlewild Airport (later named John F. Kennedy International Airport), killing 95.
Nov. 30, 1962: Eastern Airlines Flight 512 crashed during a botched landing at Idlewild, killing 25 of the 51 aboard.
Feb. 8, 1965: Eastern Airlines Flight 663 took off from Kennedy and crashed into the Atlantic Ocean south of Jones Beach, killing 84.
June 24, 1975: Eastern Airlines Flight 66 crashed during a landing attempt at Kennedy. Eleven survived and 113 died.
Sept. 20, 1989: A US Air jet skidded off of a LaGuardia runway during an aborted takeoff, killing two.
Jan. 25, 1990: Avianca Flight 52 crashed in Cove Neck after running out of fuel, killing 73 onboard.
March 22, 1992: US Air Flight 405 took off from LaGuardia and crashed into Flushing Bay, killing 24. Fifty-one survived.
July 30, 1992: TWA Flight 843 crashed after an aborted takeoff from Kennedy. All 280 aboard survive.
July 17, 1996: TWA Flight 800 exploded over the Atlantic south of East Moriches after taking off from Kennedy, killing 230.
Sept. 11, 2001: Hijackers flew an American Airlines jet and a United Airlines jet into the Twin Towers, killing more than 3,000.
Nov. 12, 2001: American Airlines Flight 587 crashed in Queens, killing 265, including 5 on the ground.
Jan. 15, 2009: US Airways Flight 1549 is ditched in the Hudson River. All 155 aboard survive.