The plane that never arrived

There were only a few hours left to leave behind that scene of ruins that turned Managua, the capital of Nicaragua, into the largest tomb in history on the fateful Christmas Eve of 1972.

A week after the violent earthquake that destroyed houses and buildings and cracked streets and avenues, the fetid odor caused by the decomposition of thousands of corpses enveloped the ghost city like a dense mist.

We arrived in Managua after a trip in the cargo cabin of a Venezuelan military plane that was part of an emergency air corridor, and that had come to Santo Domingo to collect food, medicine, blankets and other utensils for the victims.

The photographer Napoleón Leroux and I, by then a fledgling journalist, obtained permission to travel on the plane, under the condition that we return to Santo Domingo as soon as the plane picked up dozens of children in Managua who lost their parents and homes.

Upon landing at the Nicaraguan airport, the Dominican ambassador, José Ángel Saviñón, provided us with a vehicle with a driver so that, in a quick journey that could not last more than an hour, we entered the city to photograph its rubble and interview citizens.

But journalistic curiosity and the desire to capture all the images of that kind of Armageddon passed the time limit and when we were able to return, in a hurry, to the airport, the military plane had already taken off, heading back to Santo Domingo.

We had no choice but to stay at the Dominican embassy and take advantage of the uncertain time we had left covering the rescue and reconstruction tasks, waiting for a stroke of luck that would return us to our country.

It was a terrible week. It was difficult to fall asleep or feel safe because at every moment the aftershocks detached the tiles from the house and they fell on the tents that covered us in the patio.

In that interregnum, houses and buildings that were cracked with the first jolt of Christmas Eve fell to the ground and it was a feat to walk through the streets full of that rubble.

Despite the validity of martial law, we were able to obtain safe-conducts and move throughout the city and nearby towns, such as Masaya and León, feeling the little that life in a traumatized country showed.

I was lucky enough to get an exclusive interview in his security bunker with the dictator Anastasio (Tachito) Somoza, taking advantage of the visit made to him by General Juan René Beauchamps Javier, to accredit himself as head of the Dominican assistance mission.

The next day, General Beauchamps Javier called us to give us news that filled us with enthusiasm: “Prepare to return tomorrow on a plane that will come from Puerto Rico to unload aid and, from there, you will find a way to get to Santo Domingo. ”.

That December 31, the impatience for the return was killing us. With our memory saturated with macabre and overwhelming images, we waited in the embassy for the moment to leave for the airport to wait for the plane. But this never arrived.

An unexpected turn in the air while leaving San Juan, Puerto Rico, en route to Managua, caused it to plummet into the ocean with a distinguished passenger on board, Major League Baseball star Roberto Clemente, and his enormous load of aid kind to the victims of a country that was not theirs.

I evoke it today as a sad chapter in the epilogue of one of my most daring and risky journalistic adventures abroad.