Thirty-five miles off the coast of St. Croix, sitting beneath some five thousand feet of
The plane remained afloat and intact
for at least five to ten minutes. The galley door and two of the four overwing
exits had been opened. There was a hole in the forward cargo compartment large
enough to allow several aircraft tires to float free. Witnesses reported
watching the plane bank to the right then sink nose first. From there, it would
have continued its mile-long dive until finally hitting the sea bed.
No attempts have ever been made to
recover the aircraft or any of the flight recorders. The cost of recovery
simply outweighs the value of what might be retrieved. Treasure seekers might
find a few items of interest. There is a blue suitcase discarded by one
passenger who claims that the suitcase contained over $135,000 in jewelry.
Another passenger claims to have left behind a briefcase containing several
hundred thousand dollars in cash. The veracity of these claims has yet to be
proved or disproved. Little else of value remains inside the fuselage: a few
purses, reading glasses, a wine bottle. There are four twenty-five-man life rafts still secured
inside the large bins mounted in the ceiling. Somewhere in the debris inside
the cabin are two cameras containing rolls of undeveloped film that captured
the last moments of the ill-fated flight. There is something else inside, however,
of great importance to a number of people – clues to what might have happened
to those who didn’t make it out.
The date is May 2, 1970. Low on fuel and flying just
hundreds of feet above the ocean’s surface, the crew of ALM 980 look out their
cockpit window and see a turbulent sea swirling beneath them. Ten- to
fifteen-foot swells rise and fall in all directions. The sky above is equally
turbulent with heavy rain and low visibility. Back in the cabin the passengers
don their life vests, for they have been told to prepare for a possible
ditching. They are obviously concerned, but most consider it nothing more than
a precaution. A few passengers refuse to put on their life vests, considering
it an unnecessary inconvenience. Assisting in the cabin is a purser, a steward,
and one stewardess. The stewardess strolls through the cabin helping passengers
with their cumbersome life jackets. In the front of the cabin, in the galley
area just behind the cockpit, the purser, the steward, and a third cockpit crewmember,
a navigator, struggle with one of the five life rafts aboard. No one pays much
attention to the four life rafts located in the bins mounted in the ceiling
just above the four overwing exits.
The lack of concern displayed in
the back of the aircraft is not shared by the two men in the cockpit. Their
eyes are glued to the digital fuel totalizer, which indicates a figure so low
that the number is unreliable. Both men know they are only seconds away from
losing both engines due to fuel starvation. When the engines finally do quit,
there are only seconds left in which to act. The captain flicks the seatbelt
and no smoking signs off and on to signal the cabin crew of the impending
impact; he doesn’t use the PA system because it’s not working.
Some of the
passengers stand as they put on their life vests. Others sit with their
seatbelts unfastened. No one notices the seatbelt and no smoking signs flicker
off and on. Nor do they hear the bells that accompany these signs. Even if they
had noticed, it wouldn’t make much difference. The cabin crew was trained by a
different airline, one that didn’t use bells to signal an emergency landing. A
few people look outside their window and note how close they are to the water.
One man sitting near an emergency overwing exit looks around at his fellow
passengers; most have no idea that they are just moments away from impact. In
the forward section of the cabin, two men stand in the aisle snapping pictures.
They are not wearing life jackets. There are shouts from the front of the cabin
for everyone to sit down. But the aircraft strikes the water before everyone
can take their seats.
Accident investigators often use the term “error chain” when explaining how
accidents occur. They know from experience garnered from decades of accident
investigations that accidents don’t occur in a vacuum. Accidents are usually
the end result of a series of mistakes or events. Remove one of the proceeding
events, or links in the error chain, and the accident does not occur. While we
can never totally eliminate errors, we can strive to not repeat them. When I
first contacted the captain of the flight, Balsey DeWitt, to inform him of my
intention to tell this story, he was reluctant to participate. He finally
agreed to be interviewed because he felt that by doing so he might help prevent
a similar accident from occurring again, or at least increase the chances of
survival should another plane succumb to a similar fate. In the numerous times
that I have spoken with the former captain, he has not once shifted blame to
another individual. He accepts full responsibility for what took place. But the
mistakes he admits to are not the only links in the error chain that led to the
ditching of ALM 980.