December 31

This Day in History

Disaster

Dec 31, 1972:

Baseball star dies in plane crash

Roberto Clemente, future Hall of Fame baseball player, is killed along with four others when the cargo plane in which he is traveling crashes off the coast of Puerto Rico. Clemente was on his way to deliver relief supplies to Nicaragua following a devastating earthquake there a week earlier.

At the end of September, Clemente had gotten his 3,000th hit in the final game of the season for the Pittsburgh Pirates. He was a hero in his native Puerto Rico, where he spent much of the off-season doing charity work. Some of his charitable work had taken him to Nicaragua, so Clemente was particularly distressed when he learned that very little aid was getting to victims of a devastating December 23 earthquake near Managua.

Clemente decided to collect supplies on his own and personally deliver them. The plan went awry when Clemente chose for the mission a plane owned by Arthur Rivera. Rivera had bought an old DC-7 propeller plane to go along with a DC-3 he operated to haul cargo in the Caribbean. Apparently, the plane was in such bad shape that others wondered why Rivera had bothered to purchase it. In fact, the DC-7 had to be ferried from Miami to Puerto Rico.

Rivera painted the exterior but did not do any significant work to the engine. This came as no surprise to safety crews at the airports out of which Rivera worked: He had been repeatedly cited for safety violations in previous years. On December 2, Rivera took the DC-7 out to test the engine but forgot to close the hydraulic pump and ended up putting the plane into a drainage ditch. This bent two of the propeller blades and damaged the landing gear. Only some of these damages were fixed prior to the December 31 flight.

On the previous day, Clemente was at San Juan International Airport's cargo area helping to load relief supplies when he discovered there were far more than could be carried in the plane he had available. Rivera approached Clemente and offered to fly the supplies to Nicaragua for $4,000, not telling Clemente he had no crew for the plane. Clemente agreed and Rivera scrambled to find a pilot. He located Jerry Hill, who had a checkered record, and began to load the plane. It was later determined that Rivera loaded the plane over its maximum capacity. In fact, Clemente himself was warned by someone at the airport that the plane looked dangerously overloaded when he was about to board.

The plane took off at 9 p.m. and the sounds of engine failure were heard as it went down the runway. It reached an altitude of only 200 feet before exploding and plunging into the ocean. Rescue workers were sent out immediately, but the task was next to impossible in the darkness. The bodies were never found. The news hit Puerto Rico hard--one friend of Clemente described it as the "night that happiness died."

A subsequent investigation into the crash revealed that the plane never should have been put in the air and that the pilot had erred by over-boosting the engines.

In 1973, Clemente was posthumously inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame. In 2002, he was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

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