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From the archives:


Three months before she was in one of America's most famous airplane crashes, flight attendant Beverly Raposa  went to see an 80-year-old Spanish woman who had a reputation of holiness and for "knowing certain things." This was in the Miami area in 1972 -- just before the downing of Flight 401.

"In September my friend said, 'oh, there's this woman, she's Catholic, she's wonderful," recalls Raposa, who now lives in Fort Lauderdale. "I went to see her and she had these statues around, including the Blessed Mother. She took my hand and said, 'You're going to be in a terrible plane crash.' She just picked up my hand and held it. She didn't know I was a flight attendant. She said, 'You're going to go right between life and death. You're going to live, but I want you to go out and get a medal of Our Lady of Mount Carmel and wear that medal and just remember, you're going to be okay.'"

It was what is known in Catholic mysticism as "reading of souls" -- when it is not an occult practice. Charismatics call it a "word of knowledge." Whatever the case, Raposa did as she was told. "I went out, I bought the medal of Our Lady of Mount Carmel and pined it on, and I was wearing it that night."

"That night" was December 29, 1972, and an Eastern Airlines L-1011 jet was about to crash into the Florida Everglades. One of the other attendants, Mercy Ruiz, had a foreboding that something was going to happen, but not Raposa [pictured above with flight crew just before the crash, bottom row, second from right]. "Stop saying that," she told her fellow flight attendant when that stewardess kept expressing fear of the flight.

Beverly was not in the state of grace, she recalls. But she had grown up with the knowledge of Catholicism and had made the nine First Fridays while she was in high school -- a devotion that carries the promise that those who do so will not die in disgrace. "I promise you in the excessive mercy of My Heart that its all-powerful love will grant to all those who receive Holy Communion on nine first Fridays of consecutive months the grace of final repentance; they will not die under my displeasure or without receiving their sacraments, my Divine Heart making itself their assured refuge at the last moment," Jesus had told St. Margaret Mary in a Church-approved revelation [see more in this devotion].

Raposa believed that. She believed in the promises. When she first became a flight attendant, she had also purchased a statue at the chapel of JFK International Airport in New York. It was of the Madonna perched on a propeller, with one side of her veil extended and a jet plane on that mantle!

And then came that fateful night.

Beverly boarded the plane, and during the flight, for some reason, she didn't sit where she had been sitting all month.

"I was not supposed to be on the next flight, so I switched off with a flight attendant who was sitting all the way in the back, on the right hand side in the rear. It's interesting because that's where the [escape] chute was."

Flight 401 flew south over coastal Virginia and then on to Wilmington, North Carolina, and thereafter was over water. A computer-stored flight plan would bring the great white Whisperliner inland over West Palm Beach, and then south to Miami -- as one history of the flight recalls, "a long, dense galaxy of lights glittering on a north-south axis between two black voids, the Atlantic ocean and the Everglades." It was basically an uneventful flight, and it got within miles of its destination. Welcome to sunny Miami...the temperature's in the low seventies, and it's a beautiful night out here...

As the plane approached, a maintenance manager in the jump seat behind the captain peered out a side window and observed that the plane was crossing the Palmetto Expressway -- a major highway just west of the airport. It was then that he and others in the cockpit became aware of a problem: A light that indicates whether the nose landing gear is down was not illuminated. The pilot chose to take the plane back up and circle around until they were sure they had landing wheels at the nose.

They figured it might be a defective light and began taking turns in an effort to fix it. The plane was put on autopilot while the first officer tried to see if he could get the light to work. That failing, he sent the maintenance manager, Donald Repo, to the avionics bay, a compartment under the cockpit where there was an optical device through which the landing gear could be directly observed. When he couldn't line it up, one of the pilots  tried to help, and in all the commotion, the autopilot yoke was bumped and  accidentally shut off!

The plane lost altitude and was never able to regain it.

They were moving at more than 220 miles per hour when it flew into the ground.

"I said to the girl across from me, 'man, those engines don't sound right,'" Raposa told Spirit Daily. "What it was, was the sound of the ground starting to come up closer, and no sooner had I said that than the plane banked to the left and those engines roared to full power" (the pilots trying to take it out of its dive).

It was too late. The left wingtip hit first, then the left engine and the left landing gear. "Of course, you know immediately that you're crashing," Beverly explains.

When the plane turned over, the floor beneath Raposa opened and she dropped through it with about 400 pounds of debris on top of her. But the chute had opened -- like a mantle -- and protected her. The last thing she remembered was looking up and seeing a waterfall of colors -- the jet fuel. When she came to, she was leaning on the side under the debris in the swamp. When later she saw pictures of her own feet under all the wreckage, she couldn't believe she had survived. And at the time, she didn't think she would, repeating the Act of Contrition three times, which brought her a feeling of peace.

She prepared to die but then remembered that she had on the medal of Our Lady of Mount Carmel. "I thought, 'wait a minute, wait a minute! I have my medal on! She told me I was going to get out.'"

The chute inflated only to the beginning of her face, for reasons no one was later to figure out. But the fact that it didn't fully inflate prevented her from being smothered. Instead of killing her, it protected her. A rear galley had fallen on top of it!

Raposa finally got out and was cited for heroics in keeping the other survivors calm, singing Christmas carols as they awaited rescue in the cold watery saw grass.

It was a crash made all the more famous by a best-selling book detailing the strange spiritual aspects of Flight 401.

Beverly, who once had thought about becoming a Carmelite nun, but then strayed, became a devout Catholic after the brush with death and ended up taking two trips to Medjugorje, where she felt the "undeniable" presence of the Blessed Mother. One of the first things she read in a book about Medjugorje was Mary saying, "I want to wrap you in the mantle of my love." The reaction of Raposa (who is now a vice president for a financial marketing firm) was, "I knew it, I knew it, I knew it! The chute on the door that went over me, that was her mantle!"

"I honestly believe I did not die because of the promises of the First Fridays," she says. "I believed in those promises. You can go back on your word, but God never goes back on His. The girl across from me died, and the girl in front of her died,  and the girl in front of me was very severely hurt, and miraculously, that chute protected me. That's Our Lady."

There were 176 on board. 101 died. "Seventy-five of us made it," says Beverly. "I have the federal report, which said that crash was not survivable. None of us should have made it out. There 75 miracles that came out of the swamp that night."

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