[A number of stories were written about Dr. Figueroa, with nearly all focusing on his untiring and heroic ministering to the medical needs of fellow survivors. This is his story. It is about his experiences and feelings about the flight and demise of Flying Tiger 923 on the very day of the ditching in 1962, but written 52 years later. He has given us the right and encouragement to print the story as he he wrote it.]
By Dr. Juan Figueroa-Longo, MD
On September 22, 1962, my wife, Carmen Amato (qpd), and I left Turner airbase located in Albany, Ga. I was the Director of the Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology at the base hospital. Turner AFB was part of the Eighth Air Force and was a grassroots network in the eastern United States with headquarters in Westover, Mass.
Our destination was Frankfurt, Germany where from there we would spend two weeks holiday between Germany, Switzerland and Italy. These holidays were granted by Colonel Francis Fardy, Commander of the Base Hospital as recognition of the work done the previous year when we were understaffed and overworked, but achieved excellent results.
A few weeks earlier we bought through an agency in NY a new Volkswagen ($ 1,600.00 at the time). We would pick it up at the factory in Wolfsburg, northeast of Frankfurt.
The day we left Turner AFB, we flew on MATS (Military Air Transport Service) to McGuire AFB in New Jersey. From there we would get another MATS flight to Frankfurt.
Arriving at “Base Operations” at McGuire, we were informed that at present there was no scheduled flights to Frankfurt that day, but there was one for Lyon, France. That plane was a 707 Trans Caribbean Airways plane leased by the military. We decided to wait for a direct flight and were instructed to go the Officers Quarters and settle in. We would be notified of the availability of a direct flight to Frankfurt.
Around 3:00 AM we were awakened and advised by telephone that there was a flight coming in and it had seating available. Quickly we went to check in Base Operations to see if it was so. After the routine paperwork we were informed that the flight would leave around 7 AM with a refueling stop in Gander, Newfoundland .
We were called for boarding at the scheduled time. Going up the ladder on the left rear of the ship, I could not avoid noticing that the door I looked dirty. While entering, I was looking at the ceiling and noticed it was of a plastic material and was tearing and ripping. The tears were patched with plastic tape.
Once inside I saw the seating arrangement, which, like other aircraft of that class, consisted of rows of two seats on the left side and three seats on the right. We were assigned two seats an the left side, where there was a window for emergency exit at rows 4-5. Carmen sat on the seat facing the window and I took the isle seat looking over the cabin.
After routine instructions the plane took off to Gander, Newfoundland.
Minutes after takeoff I heard a voice from the back of the cabin speaking loudly, “I can see daylight thru the door.” A stewardess went to the back door to look, and without comment, she went back to the cockpit.
Years later I met fellow passenger Master Sergeant Ernest Wilson, of New Orleans in San Juan, Puerto Rico. In recalling the ordeal, Sgt. Wilson confessed that it was he who made the comment about seeing light through the door.
As we boarded the plane, some passengers took a second look at us because we were wearing metal Eastern Airlines wings. We had flown Eastern Airlines before and the crew gave us Airline wings.
Because of the Eastern Airline flight, which was a similar plane, we expected to hear the engine superchargers before reaching cruising altitude. The powering of the superchargers was a very noticeable event and the captain always advertised the event to avoid frightening the passengers. The engine revolutions slow down to almost idle, the plane loses speed and would seem to lose altitude. And then the engines increased their speed and strength to activate the “superchargers.”
I take time to narrate that routine flight, because on the flight to Gander from McGuire that never happened. I could never tell if that specific model plane had no “superchargers,” or for some reason was not able to use them, or was not able to climb to cruising altitude . We flew at low altitude for 2-3 hours and could clearly see the trees in the mountains.
We arrived at Gander for refueling and a brief pre-Atlantic flight break. The layover took about 6 hours, which seemed to me to be a long time for refueling.
From the large window in the airport, I could see people walking around the plane, looking from side to side and looking up and down the plane. It seemed like they were arguing about minor repairs. Maybe the announced bad weather caused a delay in game plans. Only the captain or the cabin crew could explain.
Finally took off for Frankfurt. I do not remember what time it was, but it was at sunset. Everything went well. I remember hearing the maneuver of “super chargers.”
We were flying over the North Atlantic. Just two hours after takeoff, we ran into a hail storm and I remember the shock of the blocks of ice on the aircraft fuselage .
Later I noticed the fire in the number two engine. It was turned off. The engine was still. The Captain announced that he had problems with the engines. He would change course towards Ireland and take all precautions for eventual splashdown (ditching procedures) .
The stewardesses passed down the aisle picking up loose objects. In our case they picked up the pen I had in my shirt pocket, my eyeglasses, and our shoes. They asked that we change seats so I would sit against the window. She warned that if we ditched, not to open the window. We should try to walk out the back door. Carmen was asked that her nylons be removed and the moored around the waist. We were instructed as to the position of ditching
I saw two stewardesses carrying a huge lump that I looked like a raft. It was dark and the interior lights started flashing, I saw fire starboard. The aircraft entered a rapid descent and the Captain announced over the loudspeaker: “Ladies and gentlemen , this is the Captain … we are going to ditch . Good luck.”
We lean forward, head touching knees and arms hugging legs. The lights were turned off and the impact came. Screams, moans, everything you can imagine.
They turned on the interior lights. The show was macabre. The right seats (three seats per row) were off the ground and were stacked on the bow of the ship trapping those passengers. Suddenly I felt my feet in ice water. A stewardess yelled at me. “Do not open that window, out the back door.”
I quickly realized, amid all the confusion, I had to get Carmen. Although otherwise instructed, I removed the window. I sat in on the bottom edge of the window and slid feet first into the water.
Carmen was about to exit the window head long, but I shouted. “Feet first!” She sat on the edge of the window, but as if she was frozen and not jumping. A wave came over the fuselage. I managed to grab her ankle and I pulled.
Once in the water, I pulled the cords of my life and it inflated. At that moment a great wave elevate us and separated us .
I do not remember how long I was in the water. I saw people running above the fuselage and port wing.
Then the body sank. I hear voices and swam toward what I thought was a raft. I could not climb onto the raft, but someone pulled me and I fell into it. When I got breath, Carmen started calling loudly. She shouted, “I’m on a raft,” and I shouted, “I’m in another. ”
The waves were huge, about 30 feet, the raft rose and fell with them and quickly spun like a top. The stacked bodies were one on top of another, some face down and others just head out allowing it to breathe. Out of a raft the water was freezing, while inside was tolerable, warmer as a product of secretions, urine and proximity of bodies. Screams, cries and prayers were heard everywhere. Suddenly someone sang a familiar song. Quickly nearly all joined in singing.
Just before the splashdown Captain Murphy sent an SOS. A plane of U.S. Air Force plane picked it up. It happened to be not so far from the site coordinates indicated by SOS and just before the time of splashdown.
With one hand lantern, one of the young paratroopers made signals to the rescue plane, which flew over the area several times, and finally sighted us . We feel some peace of mind when it went into a flight pattern and turn off the lights of the landing gear. That and another aircraft took turns so as not lose sight of us.
Panic began to be felt with the loneliness.
Finally, a light appeared on the horizon. It seemed to approach and then move away . Eventually we could hear voices as it approached. It seemed to me Spanish or Italian.
It was a Swiss boat of registration with mostly an Italian crew. The ship continued to approach. The waves were so big that at times the faces of the crew watching us sank below the line of the closest waves and then, as we watched, they pitched up to 30 to 40 feet above us.
The crew threw overboard rope mesh (Jacobs ladder). Several crew members jumped in when the raft sank below the deck. I jumped toward the ship and I grasped the mesh, but I could not climb. Someone grabbed me and pulled me on to the deck. I fell on to the deck like a sack of rice. Several of the crew of Celerina jumped into the raft and climbed out with the women and injured.
At one point I found myself in a large room. It was the crew mess. Other survivors were sitting or leaning against a wall. I was offered a drink of brandy.
Some time passed. I was confused and did not believe what was happening. A crew member entered the room and asked, “Mr. Figueroa?”
“I’m … ,” I answered. Then he said … “A signora seeks for you.”
When the crewman finished with his message, I asked, “How many rafts have been collected?”
“One” he answered me, and left.
[Dr. Figueroa went on tirelessly for the next several days with little or no sleep, administering to the survivors without the aid of his eye glasses that were collected on the aircraft.
His final question about the number of rafts was an attempt to clarify the situation in his mind. All on board knew there were to be 5 life-rafts that opened automatically on impact. Two may have been destroyed with breaking off of the wing, but it seems that the should have been deployed automatically and available in any case. There were two more in the wing that was still in tact on the side closest to the sole survivor raft. It is said that an Air Force NCO, familiar with the mechanics of the aircraft set his mind to opening the closest raft storage-hatch on the left side. When he got there within seconds of impact the hatch on the wing was empty. No raft.
Passengers were so confident that five rafts were available for their safety, that Dr. Figueroa believed that he was boarding a different raft than the one his wife had found when he was pulled from the raging seas. He could hear her voice, but assumed that she was in another raft adjacent to the jumble of frantic passengers of which he was a part.
One of the paratroopers who was one of the first to make it to the life raft, deployed by Navigator Nicholson by hand from the rear door, heroically proceeded to pull others to safety. Within a short while it became obvious that the raft was too small to properly handle so many survivors. He started shouting to those in the water that they should go to another raft. That raft, which was clearly dangerously overcrowded, turned out to be the only one available. In the darkness and ocean chaos, who would have known it was the only one, especially after being told so confidently that there would five.
One other note about rafts: They were far from being “automatically deployable.”They required a degree of skill and a considerable amount of muscle strength to inflate (Read navigator Sam Nicholson’s account of opening the raft thrown out the back door. Troopers who tried to help Nicholson were simply unable to do so.)
Dr. Figueroa may be the only person to raise the question 52 years ago. Others that night were in shock and probably delirious about being alive. A safety equipment inventory was no doubt the furthest thing from their minds.]