Rescuer recalls eerie scene of Everglades crash
Published: Sunday, January 4, 2009 at 7:19 p.m.
Last Modified: Sunday, January 4, 2009 at 7:19 p.m.
FLAGLER BEACH, Fla. — It was just after Christmas 36 years ago when Flagler Beach resident Arthur Woosley, then a firefighter in Miami-Dade County, got a call to go to the Everglades and look for a missing airliner.
Woosley, now 69, and two other firefighters on Engine 9 headed out to search for an Eastern Airlines jet with 176 people on board that had vanished from radar just before midnight on Dec. 29, 1972. The firefighters arrived at Levee 67 overlooking the Everglades, and Woosley said in a recent interview that all they could see was the distant light of an airboat. Then they scanned the area with the firetruck's hand-operated spotlight.
"We could see something in the distance, almost like it was a white sheet out there; later found out it was either the cockpit or the tail section, which seemed to be separated by about half a mile."
Woosley was about to get real busy in the biggest airline crash-related call of his nearly 30 years with Miami-Dade County Fire Rescue. Ninety-nine people died in the crash, according to the National Transportation Safety Board. Two died of their injuries later. Seventy-five survived.
Woosley's firefighting career began after he moved to South Florida from New York City, where he had been a police officer. He decided to switch and become a firefighter.
"It's a much more liked profession," Woosley said. "Policemen, and believe me my daughter is a police officer in Chicago so I have nothing against police officers, but I realize that being a firefighter everybody liked you when you came, instead of giving them a ticket or locking them up or breaking up their family fights."
Woosley was a battalion chief by the time he retired in 1998 from the Miami-Dade Fire Rescue.
He and his wife, Marion, who was also a firefighter for Miami-Dade, have been living in Flagler Beach for 10 years. He said the couple like the "Old Florida" charm of the seaside community.
Woosley was a founding member of Concerned Citizens of Flagler Beach, a now non-existent community group which in 2001 successfully opposed a westward annexation of a 2,050-acre planned residential community. Most recently, Woosley was among residents who unsuccessfully opposed an ordinance regulating short-term rentals in the city. Woosley and others had argued that short-term rentals should not be allowed outside permitted rental zones.
In December 1972, Woosley had been with Miami-Dade Fire Rescue only a few years when he found himself standing on a levee looking out over the darkness and devastation of Flight 401.
"You have to imagine the conditions out there," Woosley said. "I remember it was a very starlit night, clear but not real bright," he said. "You could see fairly far but not real far."
The Eastern Airlines Lockheed L-1011 departed New York and had been about to land at Miami International Airport when the pilots decided to fly over the Everglades so they could investigate a possible problem with the landing gear.
The crew of Flight 401 was distracted as they worked on a malfunctioning nose landing gear light, according to the NTSB. The crew thought they were flying 2,000 feet above the sawgrass and swamps. They didn't notice as the plane descended in the darkness, crashing into the Everglades.
Woosley remembers trudging through the muck and water as he searched for the dead and living amid the sawgrass towering above him. Woosley and the other rescuers would take the people back to the levee where more rescue workers were stationed. He remembers one body in particular.
Woosley was pulling the sawgrass back and holding a hand light when its beam pointed right at a man in a shirt and tie still strapped into his seat.
"Scared the hell out of me," Woosley said.
Although Woosley said the man had no obvious injury, it was apparent he was dead. He put his hand up to the man's mouth to see whether he could feel anything. He couldn't.
"You weren't dealing with one person, you know, anywhere you went, anywhere you looked, there were people," Woosley said. "Most, unfortunately, were dead."
Woosley also remembers seeing a survivor walking out of the muck.
"I was completely aghast when I saw this lady walking toward me. . . . She was covered with mud," Woosley said. "She was very slight. She walked out and we put her on the levee also."
At some point, the people who had been hunting frogs from the airboat glided to where the firefighters were and transported them to other parts of the crash site. The frog hunters had been the first at the scene. More firefighters and rescuers continued to arrive.
Another former Miami-Dade firefighter who was not on Woosley's crew but responded to the crash was John King, 66, of Miami. Later, Woosley would become King's supervisor. But that night they were both wading around the swamp water, trying to help any way they could.
King said it was a scary scene as firefighters and other rescuers separated in the marsh looking for survivors. He remembers a light from an airboat illuminating one body.
"There was a good foot and a half of water," King said. "I'm cold and everything else. It's real spooky. There was a guy who was looking at me, but he was dead as a doornail and he was in the water with his eyes wide open."
King said he felt bad, as if it had been rude to look at the man.
"I shouldn't be out staring at people," King said. "And it made me nervous because he is looking right at me, like he's going to jump out at me. You'd never know he wasn't alive."
At the time, King was new to the fire department, still in his probationary period.
"I was a green rookie looking forward to some action and some excitement," King said. "And what I found out there was not pleasant at all."
King, who retired several years ago after 32 years with the department, said he has not noticed any lasting impact on Woosley from that terrible night.
Woosley said he hasn't either, except he is not the most eager of fliers.
"I don't enjoy flying. I don't avoid flying. I will fly," Woosley said.
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