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Survivors learn to cope 20 years after North Shore plane crash

The vertical scar on Daniela Montoya-Fontalvo's abdomen reminds her daily how, as an infant, she cheated death on a wooded Cove Neck hillside.

>>Click here to see more News 12 videos from the Avianca crash 20 years ago

Montoya-Fontalvo - at 9 months, the youngest survivor of the 1990 Avianca crash that claimed 73 lives - was hanging from the back of a passenger seat when her mother found her. She spent about 10 days in a coma.

"My parents have both taught me that we're very blessed to be alive," Montoya-Fontalvo, now 20 and a Brandeis University junior, said recently.

Montoya-Fontalvo; her mother, Miryam, a metallurgical engineer; her father, Luis, an electrical engineer; and her sister, Diana, then 4, were returning from visiting relatives in Colombia and all sustained serious injuries when Flight 52 crashed 20 years ago tomorrow. They lived in Rego Park, Queens, but later moved to Natick, Mass. - her sister is a third-year medical student at Columbia University.

Montoya-Fontalvo coordinates a volunteer elementary and high school tutoring group in the Boston area and is president of her sorority.

"Even if I don't remember [the crash], I try to keep busy and do good things in my life," she said.

Unlike Montoya-Fontalvo, Placido Martin, 58, of East Meadow, said memories do return "and you relive it again . . . seeing the dead, being among them."

After the leg injury he suffered in the crash, and multiple surgeries, he no longer runs marathons but cycles instead. He said rain or a winter chill can set off "unbearable pain."

Nestor Zarate, 67, of Miami Beach, was planning to fly to New York this weekend for a survivors' Mass at The Church of St. Dominic in Oyster Bay.

Zarate, a foreign trade attorney who once lived in Manhattan and summered in Greenport, was returning from meetings with coffee companies when Flight 52 dropped from the sky.

A broken back, legs, ankle, ribs and internal injuries put him in a wheelchair for a year. He still has lingering back pain.

Zarate said he has written a book about Flight 52 to be published in Colombia.

He admits to "sweaty palms" the first time he flew after the crash. Now, he says, he flies without fear.

But Margie Lawder, 44, of King of Prussia, Pa., says she will never fly again.

Lawder, once the manager of a fast-food restaurant, was returning from a visit to Bogota with the man she calls "the love of my life" - Miguel Olaya III, a New Jersey chef. Olaya died and Lawder suffered a broken neck, leg, ankle and multiple internal injuries.

In 1997, Lawder earned an undergraduate degree in sociology, but she can't work because sitting and standing for long periods can be painful.

"I'm a horrible movie partner," Lawder said.

While her pain has worsened with age, she finds joy in her daughter, Jessica, 11.

"Jessica became the happy ending," she said.

With Laura Rivera

Safety and response after the crash:

Because the pilots never formally declared a “fuel emergency” — two words that would have cleared other traffic for an immediate landing — the Federal Aviation Administration developed a standardized glossary of terms to be used by pilots and air traffic controllers for discussing fuel situations. The same glossary was distributed by an international air safety group to foreign airlines.

The FAA issued a notice that controllers should request from flight crews clarification of ambiguous transmissions about possible emergency situations.

The FAA subsequently banned airlines from nine Latin American and African countries from flying into the United States until their governments improved safety oversight.

Because so many rescue vehicles arrived at the remote location without first checking with the county fire communications center, gridlock ensued and ambulances were blocked. Peter Meade, who created the center and emergency response plan in place in 1990, said subsequent training has emphasized the need for staging the arrival of emergency equipment and having the police control access quickly.

The county acquired a mobile emergency command post, and the police installed a computerized dispatch system after the crash. An improved radio network is now being installed.
— KEITH HERBERT AND BILL BLEYER

>>Click here to see more videos from the Avianca crash 20 years ago

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