LYING IN HIS HOSPITAL BED IN Cali, Colombia, Mauricio Reyes drifts in and out of a deep, healing sleep. There is much about his ordeal that he does not remember. About the only thing that is clear is the final moment before the American Airlines Boeing 757 slammed into the mountain on its approach to Cali on the night of Dec. 20. “All of a sudden, without warning, the plane began to shake violently,” he later told his family. Mauricio, 19, a junior at the Dearborn campus of the University of Michigan, returning home to his family in Cali for Christmas, was certain he was about to die aboard Flight 965. Instinctively he clutched the hand of Mercedes Ramirez, 21, a junior at Northwest Missouri State University at Maryville, who was seated next to him and whom he had only met a few hours before.
Then nothing. The next thing Mauricio knew he was sprawled on the ground near Mercedes, both of them bloodied and throbbing with pain, in the cold and dark of an Andean mountainside. But, of course, they were lucky—miraculously so. They were two of only four human survivors of the crash of Flight 965, the others being Gonzalo Dussan Sr., 36, a copy technician from Somerville, N.J., and his 6-year-old daughter Michelle. (A dog, later nicknamed Milagro—Miracle—was found alive and virtually unscathed in his kennel in the cargo hold.) All 160 of the other passengers and crew were killed in one of the worst—and most puzzling—aviation disasters in recent years. Last week, after a preliminary examination of the flight recorders, American and Colombian investigators were inclined to rule out equipment failure and sabotage as causes of the crash and were focusing instead on human error, either on the part of the flight crew or air-traffic controllers.
On the night of the crash, the prospect for tragedy could not have seemed more remote as hundreds of family and friends, in a festive mood, thronged Cali’s international airport to greet two flights from Miami carrying holiday travelers. Among those at the terminal were members of one of Cali’s most respected families: Dr. Carlos Reyes, 56, a neurosurgeon at the city’s University Hospital; his wife, Mariella; their eldest son, Juan Carlos, 34, an ophthalmologist in Cali; and their second son, Andres, 26, an exporter from Weston, Fla., who had recently returned for the holidays. They were all there to meet Mauricio, the Reyeses’ youngest son, as well as their daughter Alexandra, 31, her husband, George Corea, and the couple’s son Daniel, 3, who were scheduled to arrive on a later Avianca flight.
No sooner had they reached the terminal than they learned that Flight 965 would be delayed. When the revised arrival time of 9:54 p.m. came and went, the Reyes family began to grow anxious. Then they heard a disturbing announcement: the American Airlines representative was wanted in the control tower. Pressing an airline staffer about the status of the flight, they were told the plane was circling because the airport had been closed. “How can you tell us this?” Juan Carlos asked, pointing out that another aircraft had just landed. The airline staffer then conceded that the control tower had lost contact with Flight 965. As that awful news sank in, a shout went up that the plane had crashed. In an instant the holiday ebullience turned to pandemonium. “People were screaming, they were hugging, they were on their knees,” says Juan Carlos. “It was terrible. You feel that your legs are going to collapse.”
For the Reyes clan, the notion that Mauricio might now be dead was especially heart-wrenching. Not only is he still considered the baby of the family, says Juan Carlos, but “he is everybody’s favorite.” Lately, Mauricio, who had spent many years in the U.S. (his father having trained in surgery at the University of Chicago), talked of switching his major from business to medicine, to follow family tradition. “Mauricio is such a good person,” says his brother Andres. “He’s totally reliable and he has a big heart.”
As the distraught family awaited official word on where the plane had crashed and the chances for survivors, Juan Carlos noticed an ambulance pull up outside the terminal, one of three that had been dispatched from University Hospital to assist in the rescue effort. Juan Carlos approached, told them he was a doctor and begged to join them. “Please let me go,” he said. “I have a brother on the plane.” At first the answer was no, but after further pleading he was allowed to accompany the two doctors and 18 paramedics who comprised the initial rescue team. The caravan set off for Buga, a cattle town 46 miles north of Cali, where airport officials believed the plane had gone down.
Leading the team was Dr. Laureano Quintero, 34, a trauma surgeon renowned at University Hospital for his dedication and skill. A bachelor, Quintero often works seven days a week, getting by on a few hours of sleep a night. “I love my work,” he explains. “It is the most important thing in my life.” Arriving in Buga after less than an hour’s drive, Quintero, Juan Carlos and the others began the task of finding the wreck. Local firemen who had heard of the crash from inhabitants of nearby San Jose mountain directed the rescuers up the rugged terrain, a tortuous drive in utter darkness. Ninety minutes later, around 4 a.m., they reached what was to become their base camp. The party left the ambulances and began to climb on foot. Juan Carlos hopefully told another would-be rescuer, “If you see a man who looks like me, it’s my brother.”
After three hours of hiking, the team arrived at a small house, weary and discouraged. None had eaten or had any water since they left, and temperatures were barely above freezing. But a local resident gave them hope, pointing upward and telling them, “That’s the way.” Soon, though, one of the veteran paramedics, John Fernando Bueno, 29, decided, more or less on intuition, to peel off from the main group and search in a different direction. And so, with the cold dawn approaching, he set out alone, armed only with a compass and a radio that soon conked out. “No battery, no equipment, no nothing,” recalls Bueno. “But I just moved on.”
By 9 the next morning, Bueno had reached the far side of the mountain, where he came upon an army patrol also looking for survivors. He was relieved to see the soldiers, given that the area is infested with leftist guerrillas and drug traffickers who work the countryside around Cali, one of the world’s cocaine-export capitals. Soon, Bueno stumbled on a tableau both horrific and heartening. In a circle no more than 100 yards across, he found scores of corpses—and there, amid all the death, five dazed, moaning survivors awaiting deliverance. Mauricio and Mercedes Ramirez were huddled together in one spot, while Gonzalo Dussan lay near Michelle and his critically injured son Gonzalo Jr., 13. (Perhaps not so coincidentally, all five had been seated in the same row, over the wing.) “It’s a miracle,” thought Bueno, who shouted for the nearby soldiers to radio for a helicopter.
Later, Mauricio told his family that he had been disoriented by the crash. “He awakened in the forest at night, very cold,” says Juan Carlos. “He thought he was in the United States because it was so cold.” All the survivors were in great pain. Bueno says he remembered the paramedics’ catechism: “Stabilization, airway, blood, vital signs, immobilization.” His deft job of immobilizing Gonzalo Sr.’s neck is credited with perhaps saving Dussan, who broke two vertebrae, from far more serious spinal damage.
Soon an army helicopter was overhead, but because of the clouds and the tricky mountain winds, it could not land. Bueno and the soldiers were forced to ease the survivors, one by one, into a rectangular basket so they could be hoisted into the chopper for the quick trip to the base camp. As it happened, Quintero, Juan Carlos and the rest of the rescue party had rushed back to the camp after they heard by radio that survivors had been found. As the helicopter touched down, they learned that the evacuees were three adults and a little girl. “Mauricio didn’t fit in either category,” says Juan Carlos. “I thought it was hopeless.” That was when the rescuer he had talked to six hours earlier suddenly shouted over to him, “Run, run—he looks like you!”—meaning one of the survivors. “I just ran. I saw him. It was Mauricio,” says Juan Carlos. “I can’t describe the feeling.” Then Juan Carlos sat down and cried.
Back in Cali, the survivors were rushed to the hospital. Gonzalo Jr. died on the operating table of cardiac arrest, the result of injuries to his head and chest. Little Michelle suffered from hypothermia and some minor head injuries but was expected to make a full recovery. Aside from his broken vertebrae, Gonzalo Sr. was coping with the loss of his son and his companion of 14 years, Nancy Delgado, 35, who was also killed in the crash. Nevertheless he later told reporters from his wheelchair that he counted himself lucky. “I feel great,” he said. “What has kept me sane and strong is the miracle of my daughter.”
Mercedes’s sister Sylvia, who rushed to her bedside from Kansas, voiced much the same sentiment. Although their parents, Benjamin and Mercedes, died on Flight 965, Sylvia felt a sense of elation at the astonishing fact that her sister had survived, suffering severe abdominal trauma but already on the mend. To Sylvia it was like a divine gift. “I’m thrilled,” she says. “When the news said Mercedes was alive, it was like all three were alive.” The Reyes family, grateful that Mauricio has suffered only broken bones in his pelvis and face, felt that thanks were owed not only to Providence but to the rescuers who had struggled through the night to reach him. “They are the heroes,” says Andres. “Juan had a motivation for going out there—it was our brother. The others were there simply to help people.”
With additional reporting by FANNIE WEINSTEIN in Dearborn, MARY HARRISON in Kansas City, ANTHONY DUIGNAN-CABRERA and MARIA EFTIMIADES in Somerville