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Christmas Carols in the Dark

December 1, 2008


As Christmas 2008 approaches, the sounds of carols fill the air. Shopping malls, used car lots, restaurants, television commercials, and the radio play the familiar songs of the season.

Much of the music of the holidays projects a happy attitude. “’Tis the season to be jolly.”  In the grocery store I have heard the late Burl Ives encouraging shoppers to “have a holly, jolly Christmas.” For many people, the Christmas season and this year in particular, will be anything but jolly. Last Sunday in the church I serve, five men, all married with children, told me they had lost their jobs.

A woman who lives alone suffers severe bouts of depression and anxiety, especially at this time of year. She told me recently that sometimes at night, the whole world seems so dark. When she starts having heart palpitations, she sings Christmas carols.

“I especially love the line, ‘a thrill of hope, the weary world rejoices.’ Just singing seems to help.”

The events surrounding first Christmas were hardly reason to be jolly. A young teenage woman traveling by donkey gave birth to her child in a stable. A carpenter is called upon to serve as a midwife for the woman he loves. Shepherds are minding their own business on a hillside near Bethlehem when all heaven breaks loose. They are terrified. Then, angels sang the first Christmas carol, “Glory to God in the Highest!”  

On Christmas Day 2007, the Associated Press published the story of Bud Marquis. Bud, now 79-years-old, lives near Homestead, Florida. Until last year, Bud was a forgotten hero.

On December 29, 1972, Eastern Airlines Flight 401 was preparing to land at the Miami International Airport. Just after 11:30 P.M., following an uneventful flight from New York, the Jumbo Jet carrying 163 passengers and 13 crew members began its approach.

The light on the control panel that indicates whether the plane’s nose gear is down had not yet illuminated. The pilot informed the control tower they would have to circle while crew members solved the problem. Air traffic controllers gave their permission. The crew was instructed to maintain an altitude of 2,000 feet.

The pilot thought he had engaged the autopilot. Instead Flight 401 went into a slow descent.

About 20 miles west of the airport, the crew received permission to turn back and make another approach. It was then the pilot realized that the big jet was just feet above the Everglades. Seven seconds later, the plane’s left wing dug into the swamp at 227 mph, sending it spinning like a pinwheel.

On that moonless night, Marquis was gigging frogs from his airboat. The city of Miami was just a distant pinpoint of light.

From 10 miles away, Marquis saw a fiery orange flash.

Bud Marquis had served for years as a state game officer. He knew how to pick out island silhouettes in the dark, to feel the changing terrain beneath his boat. Speeding across the sawgrass and mud, the airboat reached a levee where Bud thought he’d seen the flash.

When he cut his engine, he heard a voice crying out, “I can’t hold my head up anymore!”

Jet fuel seeped into his boots when he jumped into the water to pull the man up. He could see passengers still strapped in their seats; some turned face down in the water.

In the alligator-infested swamp, a flight attendant gathered survivors around her. When they heard the airboat, they started singing Christmas carols, so rescuers would hear them. Bud heard the carolers and went to the rescue.

Helicopters hovered above the wreckage. Using a flashlight, Marquis motioned them toward a nearby levee.

On that moonless December night, Bud Marquis pulled survivors from the water, taking a few at a time to the levee.

He ferried rescuers into the wreckage site.

Ninety-four passengers, three pilots, and two flight attendants were dead. Investigators marveled that anyone survived. In all, 77 people were rescued, many of them by Bud Marquis.

Months after the investigation, one survivor found Marquis and gave him a check for $1000. Eastern Airlines mistakenly thought they had hired Marquis and sent him a check for $125. Bud returned the check.

For more than three decades, there was silence about crash of Eastern Airlines Flight 401. Investigators and reporters stopped calling. Bud’s airboat rusted in the yard. Friends described Bud as a prickly old man in failing health.

Suddenly interest in the airline crash of thirty-five years ago disturbed his quiet. He had saved lives, but he wasn’t used to people asking about it.

Last December, survivors and families of victims finally rallied to recognize the heroism of Bud Marquis. Some raised money to rebuild his airboat. Others arranged for an official award. The man he heard struggling to stay above water thanked him personally.

“I didn’t feel it was any great, heroic thing,” Marquis said.

There are plans to build a memorial near the crash site.

For Bud Marquis, the memories of that night thirty-six years ago are vividly etched in his mind. He remembers the sound of Christmas carols that dark night in the swamp.

Phillips Brooks wrote, “Yet in thy dark streets shineth, the everlasting light. The hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight.”

From Bethlehem to the Everglades, hope and fear still meet in the dark places of our lives. It is reason enough to sing.

Kirk H. Neely

© December 2008


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