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First responders remember crash of Avianca airliner in Cove Neck 30 years ago

First responders talk about the events after Avianca Flight 52 crashed in Cove Neck 30 years ago on January 25, 1990.  (Credit: Linda Rosier)

Thirty years ago, veterinarian Dr. Geoffrey Broderick was working late when his sister-in-law called and said a plane had crashed in his neighborhood. He chuckled.

It was no joke, and from that moment Broderick — and an incredible array of firefighters, police officers, medical personnel and residents — ran to help save people at the crash site of Avianca Flight 52 in the Oyster Bay community of Cove Neck. 

They climbed wooded hills to find the battered Boeing 707. In the darkness of a foggy, drizzly night, they saw bodies that had been hurled into trees and heard trapped passengers crying out within the crumpled plane. Broderick used branches to set broken bones. Medical responders hung IVs from tree limbs.

When dawn came, they had saved 85 souls, about half of the 158 passengers and crew on board. Flight 52 was coming in from Colombia when it ran out of fuel after a failed attempt to land at Kennedy Airport and crashed into a tree-covered Cove Neck hillside shortly after 9:30 p.m. Authorities cited bad weather and a failure of communication between the flight crew and controllers as among the causes.

On the 30th anniversary of that terrible night — Jan. 25, 1990 — those Long Islanders who were there remembered their frantic efforts with pride through tears.

"From my heart, I say everybody tried to help out," said Ralph Longo, 63, of Locust Valley, a medical technician. "We all worked together and obviously we did it right."

The veterinarian

Still in his jeans and a scrub shirt, Broderick ran out of his Huntington office with a stethoscope and a bunch of tourniquets. He was among the first to arrive at the crash scene.

Broderick said he formed a small group of responders into an impromptu triage unit. They worked frantically to set broken bones and stop the bleeding from people's wounds.

He treated a girl named Liedy, who was 9, stopping her bleeding and wrapping makeshift splints around both of her broken legs, he said. She told him her mother and little brother had died in the crash.

Broderick flew on a chopper with her and several other children to the hospital. In the emergency room, he told her he would be back. She nodded, tears in her eyes.

Broderick returned to the crash scene and worked through the night. 

The next day, Broderick and his wife visited Liedy in the hospital, and they visited her there often over the four months of her recovery. 

Leidy eventually went back to Colombia. The two have lost touch over the years.

"I think of Liedy continuously over these 30 years," said Broderick, who is still a practicing vet. "Now she's all grown up, and I think what a delight it would be to see her."

The passenger

Margie Lawder is still feeling the pain from the crash of Flight 52.

Lawder was a 24-year-old woman in love back then, intent on marrying the man she was flying beside on the plane. They had met in the Philadelphia area and, after dating for a few years, flew down to Colombia to meet his family, she said.

The plane crash on the flight back remains a mix of memories and blackouts, she said. 

"I remember being crushed by seats and people and a woman whose hair was on my face," said Lawder, now 54 and living in the Philadelphia area. 

She added, "I remember light coming on and we were all crying out for help. Everything hurt."

In the crash, she suffered a broken neck and lower back, as well as breaks in her right leg, heel and ankle, she said. She experienced severe internal bleeding due to damage to her liver and colon, she said.

"I've since had two surgeries to get rid of scar tissue, to prevent blockages," she said. Last year she had four outpatient surgeries on her neck and lower back.

Worse than anything, she lost the man she loved, Miguel Olaya, a chef who was weeks away from his 30th birthday.

"The whole thing ruined my life," Lawder said. "Thirty years later I'm still getting surgeries and missing him."

The physician

When Dr. Scott Coyne arrived on the scene, emergency workers and local residents were carrying people from the aircraft to a nearby large yard, owned by the father of tennis great John McEnroe. 

"It looked like a battlefield," remembered Coyne of Lloyd Harbor. "Everybody had this sense of cooperation and understanding with each other. I credit that coordination with effectively saving lives."

That night, Coyne said, changed his life.

He has focused on emergency medicine since. He joined the Suffolk County Police Department in 1992, using the lessons he learned in the Avianca crash to help train the entire department in emergency on-scene medicine.

Coyne credits the Avianca crash and the tragedy of 9/11 with spurring widespread attention and training in emergency care among police throughout the region.

Coyne now serves as chief surgeon and medical director for the Suffolk police force. He was integral in creating the department's Medical Crisis Action Team in 2007. Other police departments have sent officers to train with Suffolk on handling mass casualty incidents. 

These tactics have become especially important in this time of mass shootings and other terror incidents, he said.

"This was my focus," he said. "To save lives, you have to build an effective system of response and training."

The medical technician

Inside the darkened, debris-strewn plane fuselage, Ralph Longo spotted the blinking eyes of a little girl.

The Nassau County ambulance medical technician worked with other responders to move debris away and pluck out the girl. She didn't want to let go of him, he recalled.

The girl was Jessica Vasquez, a 2½-year-old toddler who was flying with her mother from Bogota. Both were among the survivors of Flight 52.

Vasquez suffered a head injury and broken leg. When she got out of the hospital, Longo visited her at her family's home in Queens, and they all stayed in touch.

Years later, Vasquez became increasingly curious about the crash and who saved her. Longo showed her his album of photos and news clippings.

"We had a very good sit-down," recalled Longo, 63, of Locust Valley, who is retired from his county job. "She was very grateful."

When Vasquez married and had her own baby, Longo and his wife attended the christening. 

Vasquez has moved back to Colombia, though the two stay in touch, he said.

"I spoke to her this morning," Longo said. "Her daughter is 7."

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