The 1972 Puerto Rico DC-7 Crash was an airplane accident that happened on December 31, 1972, in Carolina, Puerto Rico. The crash is most notable for claiming the life of Pittsburgh Pirates star Roberto Clemente.
Roberto Clemente was a baseball star for the Pittsburgh Pirates, having won two World Series championships with them, and becoming only the 11th player in the sport's history to collect 3,000 hits on September 30, 1972, in what ultimately turned out to be his last at bat in Baseball's Major Leagues. During October 1972, he went to Managua, Nicaragua to coach the Puerto Rico national baseball team during that year's Amateur Baseball World Series.
Only two months after Clemente's visit, on December 23, an earthquake in Managua took place, causing the deaths of 5,000 persons and devastation to Nicaragua's capital. Many countries sent help but Nicaraguan President Anastasio Somoza Debayle and his government personnel were suspected of stealing goods sent to Nicaragua. This made Clemente desire to send help, paid for with his own money, and to go and supervise the delivery of goods himself. Clemente had been convinced to involve himself in the relief efforts by local television show host, reporter and celebrity Luis Vigoreaux.
This accident caused the deaths of all five people on board, including Baseball Hall of Fame member Roberto Clemente. The airplane crashed immediately after take-off from Isla Verde International Airport, falling into the beach at the adjacent area known as Pinones.
Clemente leased an aircraft from a local airline, American Express Leasing (also named "American Air Express" by some sources), owned by a Puerto Rican whose name was Arthur J. Rivera. Unknown to Clemente, the company's aircraft, a DC-7, had suffered a non-fatal accident just 29 days before the fateful flight took place.
On December 31, bad weather hit the area near Isla Verde International Airport. Despite this and warnings by his father, his wife Vera and son Roberto, Jr. that they had bad feelings and premonitions about the fate of the flight, Clemente insisted on going on with the relief mission and taking off on that day. Clemente himself apparently had a dream about him overlooking his own funeral days before.
After spending most of the afternoon loading the aircraft, the flight's crew, including pilot Jerry Hill, Rivera-who was to act as co-pilot during the flight-Francisco Matias and Rafael Delgado Cintron, boarded the plane. They had loaded the airplane, registration number N500AE, with an amount of freight that caused it to go over the plane's gross take-off weight, to 148,943 pounds, about 4,200 pounds over the plane's gross take-off weight's limit. Clemente also boarded around the same time as the aircraft's crew.
At 9:11 local standard time, the plane taxied around the airport's runway 7. By then the weather had cleared and only a few clouds were visible. The plane took off from the runway, but soon, pilot Hill declared they were returning to the airport. The plane experienced catastrophic failure of engines number 2 and 3, the two closest to its fuselage, right after being airborne. The airplane then crashed into the ocean, at some time after 9:23 PM local standard time.
Recovery efforts started almost immediately after the aircraft went down. By 11 PM, radio and television stations across Puerto Rico were informing the public about the accident, so a crowd formed around Pinones beach, many of them trying to help search efforts. Only one body, however, was recovered, pilot Hill's.
Part of the fuselage and the tail of the airplane were also found.
The accident aircraft was a Douglas DC-7CF freighter conversion of DC-7 (cn/msn 45130/823) registered in the United States as N500AE. The aircraft first flew in 1957.
The cause of the crash could not be determined precisely due to difficulties recovering the wreckage. Probable causes were attributed to poor maintenance, excessive wear in engine components, un-rectified damage from a previous taxi-ing accident, uncertified crew members, overloaded aircraft and inadequate crew preparation.