'A true miracle': The crash of LACSA 628

Passengers and crew escaped a near-tragedy in Costa Rica, 33 years ago.

The afternoon of May 23, 1988, began as an unremarkable one for passengers boarding LACSA flight 628 at Juan Santamaría International Airport near San José, Costa Rica.

The Boeing 727 aircraft that would operate the short hop to Managua, Nicaragua, with onward service to Miami, was almost completely empty. In fact, the mid-size jet had only just been called into service because a different flight had been overbooked.

Only 16 passengers boarded the plane, which had first flown in 1965 and was being leased by LACSA, Costa Rica’s national airline.

The jetliner left the gate and reached the Runway 07 minutes later. Cleared to depart, captain Armando D’Ambrosio pushed the throttles of the tri-engine jet to takeoff power.

As the 727 thundered down the runway, the pilots pulled back on the yoke to rotate the aircraft, but the nose wheel refused to lift off the asphalt.

D’Ambrosio and first officer Armando Rojas had to make a split-second decision: Continue the takeoff, or abort? The crew chose to abandon the takeoff and slammed on the brakes.

Unable to stop within the remaining runway distance, the aircraft overran the runway, broke into three pieces as it crashed through the airport fence and burst into flames.

“It was a normal takeoff roll, but then it kind of didn’t have the thrust it normally does and the noise came. It was over in a matter of seconds,” said Shirley Herrera, who worked as a flight attendant on LACSA 628.

Having survived the impact but still aboard a burning plane, the passengers and crew knew they had moments to escape. The rear of the aircraft was ablaze, so passengers scrambled to exit through the doors near the front.

Unable to open the cabin door, the two pilots and flight engineer evacuated through a window in the cockpit.

Firefighters arrived to the crash site minutes later, but by then it was too late to save the plane. They — and a growing crowd of onlookers — watched as the Boeing 727 burned, praying that no one was left inside.

Incredibly, everyone on board had escaped with only minor injuries.

“It was a true miracle,” Herrera said. “I assume that the first news, in all the panic, was that we had died.

“The part [of the plane] that was facing the highway was on fire. All people saw were flames, but we came out the other side.”

But what had caused the accident? The last-minute airplane switch and the light passenger load meant the Boeing 727 was significantly imbalanced. With excess weight near the front, the plane struggled to rotate — and probably would have been uncontrollable had it left the ground.

The decision to abort takeoff, a quick evacuation led by the cabin crew, and quite a bit of luck helped LACSA 628 end as a cautionary tale instead of in tragedy.

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