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Survivors, rescuers remember Avianca crash 20 years later

Avianca crash survivor Jessica Vasquez, 23, hugs Nassau

Avianca crash survivor Jessica Vasquez, 23, hugs Nassau County EMT Ralph Longo, 53, who saved her life. (Jan. 24, 2010) Photo Credit: James Carbone

For the survivors of Avianca Flight 52, and their rescuers, time is divided neatly in two. There is before the crash, and there is after.

Monday is the 20th anniversary of the flight's plunge into a Cove Neck hillside. Seventy-three passengers and crew died in the crash after the Boeing 707 ran out of fuel.

Survivors and their rescuers gathered for a Mass at St. Dominic's Church in Oyster Bay Sunday to remember the indelible marks made by the near-death experience.

Jessica Vasquez, 22, of Maspeth was a 2 1/2-year-old toddler with her mother on Flight 52 from Bogota, Colombia. Both were among the 85 survivors.

>>VIDEO: Click here to watch a summary of the events

"Now that I'm seeing everybody here, I'm thanking them because I am here," she said.

Vasquez had a tearful reunion with Ralph Longo, a Nassau County Police EMT who had pulled her out of the wreckage. The two hadn't seen each other since a reunion 12 years ago.

"This is such a great day," said Longo, who recalled seeing Vasquez's eyes blinking at him in the remains of the plane. "It's great to see her. She's grown up to be a young lady."

Geoffrey Broderick, a veterinary surgeon in Huntington, was one of the first doctors at the crash scene, off secluded, narrow Tennis Court Road. Broderick worked until 5 a.m. in just scrubs and a polo shirt in the cold January weather, treating broken bodies and hanging IV bags from tree branches.

"It's never been the same" since, he said. "Every year, not a day goes by that I don't remember this."

The Rev. Kevin M. Smith, pastor of St. Dominic's, also had tended to crash victims.

"Thinking about that plane crash that night, there were so many things broken," he said. "It was by reaching out and coming together that we were able to make things whole."

German Zabala, 36, of South Valley Stream, said his father had been on Flight 52, flying back to New York after spending the Christmas holidays with his family in Colombia.

Alvaro Zabala's name ended up on the deceased list, leaving his family to grieve for an agonizing week until they discovered that he had actually made it out alive. A woman had switched seats with him before the crash.

"Every day we're giving thanks to God," German Zabala said of the survival of his father, 57, who lives in Buga, Colombia.

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