Two Massachusetts roommates recently set out to solve the more than 30-year-old mystery of a South American plane crash. What they found was a grim reminder of the tragedy that may or may not provide some answers about what happened that day.
It all started with some curiosity and a Google search. That’s what led Dan Futrell to Eastern Air Lines Flight 980, which flew into a Bolivian mountain on New Year’s Day in 1985.
“The highest recorded commercial plane crash, as far as we know in the history of aviation, at 19,600 feet,” he says.
Twenty-nine people died, including eight Americans. Several expeditions had made it to the crash site, but none found the flight data recorder or cockpit voice recorder. One mission by the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board failed when the searchers all got altitude sickness.
But Futrell thought finding those black boxes must be possible.
“Maybe hard, for sure. But not impossible,” Futrell says. “So that sounded like a good adventure to me.”
Futrell served two tours with the Army in Iraq, and now that he’s working a desk job, this seemed like just the thing to restore a little excitement to his life. He managed to rope his roommate at the time, Isaac Stoner, into the plan.
“I seem to have found a role as something of an enabler for Dan,” Stoner says.
The two started planning. They acclimatized themselves for the extreme altitude by taking turns sleeping in a rented tent in their basement that gradually lowered the oxygen level. They arranged for a guide and a cook. Five months later, they found themselves hiking up Mount Illimani in Bolivia.
After a brutally steep and exhausting ascent, they started to find parts of the plane.
“That’s the CO2 canister from a life jacket?” one of them asks in a recording from the mountain.
It had all probably been encased in ice for decades, but warm conditions over the last year brought it out. And the ice had preserved more than just plane parts.
“That’s a hip bone. Top of the femur,” Futrell says in a recording of the moment. “Oh my God.”
“We had definitely planned for this,” Stoner says. “But it was a moment, it was like, ‘Wow, this is real. What would the families want? What’s the right thing to do?’ ”
They decided it was best to dig a grave. It’s still not clear why none of the earlier expeditions reported finding any body parts, although they may just have been buried in snow and ice. There was speculation an explosion on the flight had caused passengers to be sucked out of the plane before it hit the mountain. At the least, this grim discovery, combined with many more after it, seemed to put that theory to rest.
And then they found a roll of black magnetic tape, like you’d find in a video cassette.
“This either is from one of the black boxes, or it has a great 1985 movie for in-flight viewing,” Futrell joked at the time.
Despite their name, black boxes are actually orange. And on the third day of searching, Stoner picked up a piece of orange metal, and noticed wires coming out of it had lettering on them: CKPT VO RCDR.
They’d found the cockpit voice recorder. It was demolished, but maybe that meant the magnetic tape did come from inside of it.
Now, Futrell and Stoner are back home in Somerville, Mass.
“So we have a cardboard box, full of orange scrap metal pieces that are clearly very, very damaged,” Stoner says, picking it up.
When they got back, it turned out the NTSB couldn’t look at what they’d found without a request from the Bolivians. So Futrell and Stoner spent five months making calls and sending letters, before they managed to break through all the bureaucracy.
Along the way, they heard from several family members of those lost on Flight 980, who have been demanding official answers for decades. And here, two guys with a strong sense of curiosity and some energy to spare had managed to answer at least some of those questions themselves.
“A lot of these family members just said, ‘Thanks for doing this. Sure, you guys don’t have a personal connection here, but you cared enough to go,’ ” Futrell says.
As they wait for the analysis of the tape, they’re hoping there’s something in there that will finally help determine what happened on that flight nearly 32 years ago.