‘Never forgotten’: Survivors of Eastern 401 crash unveil memorial on 50th anniversary

Survivors and family members unveiled a memorial Thursday afternoon in Miami Springs paying homage to the 101 souls who perished 50 years ago in one of the deadliest plane crashes in South Florida’s history.

The granite monument, installed just north of the Miami International Airport, now serves as a permanent tribute to those who died when the Miami-bound Eastern Air Lines flight 401 crashed in the Everglades on the night of Dec. 29, 1972.

Against the backdrop of a bright green and quiet golf course, some of the survivors — accompanied by Miami-Dade County Mayor Daniella Levine Cava and Miami Springs officials — mourned the dead, prayed for their souls and vowed to always remember them.

101 names are etched in stone at the memorial dedicated to those who perished on Eastern Flight 401. On Thursday, Dec. 29, 2022, survivors, family members, and friends gathered for the unveiling of the memorial for those who perished on Eastern Flight 401, which crashed 50 years ago in Miami Springs, Florida.
101 names are etched in stone at the memorial dedicated to those who perished on Eastern Flight 401. On Thursday, Dec. 29, 2022, survivors, family members, and friends gathered for the unveiling of the memorial for those who perished on Eastern Flight 401, which crashed 50 years ago in Miami Springs, Florida.

Former flight attendant Beverly Raposa, one of 75 people who survived after the plane crashed with 176 people on board, said that she has never forgotten the passengers and crew members who died. The 75-year-old woman, who was 25 at the time, was given a standing ovation for spearheading the efforts to build the memorial, located on the grassy median of the Curtiss Parkway and across from the Miami Springs Golf and Country Club.

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“It gives me and my fellow surviving passengers, crew members and family members of loved ones who perished a time to all come together and remember them since we never had a chance to say goodbye,” Raposa said. “Here today, we hope that everyone, myself included, will find peace with this memorial monument.”

Mercy Ruiz, 75, a survivor and former flight attendant, told the Miami Herald that the solemn event felt like a graduation — a gratifying ending to months of working side-by-side with Raposa to make the memorial a reality. Ruiz was 28 years old and had been working as a flight attendant for less than three years when the plane went down. On Thursday, she was wearing the same Eastern Air Lines gold wings pin that she wore on the fateful night.

READ MORE: An Eastern plane crashed into the Everglades in 1972. See the coverage as it happened

“Now the names are there and they will never be forgotten,” Ruiz said.

Flight attendants Mercy Ruiz, left, and Beverly Raposa, embrace after unveiling the memorial as survivor Ron Infantino looks on.
Flight attendants Mercy Ruiz, left, and Beverly Raposa, embrace after unveiling the memorial as survivor Ron Infantino looks on.

A wife, a grandfather, and a mother

Ron Infantino is a passenger who survived the tragedy. The 76-year-old said his wife of 20 days, Lilly Infantino, died in the crash. He read a poem in her honor from her perspective — as if she were speaking to him from the heavens above.

“I know how much you miss me, and I miss you too. It was time to leave as each of us will do. Although not in your arms, I’m always in your heart. The precious love we shared means we are never far apart,” Infantino said.

Family members of those who perished on Eastern Flight 401 embrace after the unveiling of the memorial for Eastern Flight 401.
Family members of those who perished on Eastern Flight 401 embrace after the unveiling of the memorial for Eastern Flight 401.

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Dawn Quinn, 59, the granddaughter of flight 401 Captain Robert A. Loft, said she was 9 years old when she heard that her grandfather’s plane had crashed. She said it was ironic that he died in one of his favorite places in the world — the Everglades.

“It’s just special to me that we are remembering all the people who lost their lives,” Quinn said.

Flight attendant Mercy Ruiz, left, is embraced by crash survivor Christina Casado, 50, who was a baby when the plane went down.
Flight attendant Mercy Ruiz, left, is embraced by crash survivor Christina Casado, 50, who was a baby when the plane went down.

READ MORE: There was another tragedy in Miami after Eastern Flight 401. What happened with ValuJet

Nichole Shackleford, 53, was just 3 years old when she lost her mother, passenger Patricia Renee Shackleford, 20, in the crash. She said her mom had moved to Connecticut and was coming home to surprise her family before New Year’s.

“This is somewhere where I can come to visit her apart from her gravesite,” Shackleford said. “I can also come here to feel her and be close to her.”

Nichole Shackelford holds a photo of her mother Patricia Renee Shackelford, who died on Flight 401 when she was three years old, as she attended the memorial dedication.
Nichole Shackelford holds a photo of her mother Patricia Renee Shackelford, who died on Flight 401 when she was three years old, as she attended the memorial dedication.

Her mother’s sister, Sharon Shackleford, 73, and best friend, Angel Sears, 70, were also in attendance. They described Renee, as they called her, as adventurous, smart, outspoken and a woman who was ahead of her time.

Sharon Shackleford said it has been painful to go on without her sister but that the memorial brings her peace.

“It’s closure; it’s been a long time coming,” she said.

Flowers and a photo of Fara Lily Infantino are placed at the base of the newly dedicated memorial dedicated to those who perished on Eastern Flight 401.
Flowers and a photo of Fara Lily Infantino are placed at the base of the newly dedicated memorial dedicated to those who perished on Eastern Flight 401.