Almost every time a commercial airline crashes, an intense investigation between local authorities, the FBI, and the National Transportation Safety Board figures out the root cause. Today’s modern technology allows experts to piece together the moment-by-moment scenarios that ultimately led to a plane’s demise.
But investigators were stumped by the downfall of Eastern Airlines Flight 980, which took off from Paraguay on its way to Miami on New Year’s Day in 1985. While crossing over a mountainous region on the border of Bolivia and Paraguay, the plane ran into problems that, decades later, authorities are just beginning to understand.
The 29 people on board Eastern Airlines Flight 980 on New Year’s Day, 1985, were all prepared to have a safe and timely flight out of Paraguay. The pilot and crew were seasoned, and it was a route they’d taken plenty of times before.
They were leaving from the gorgeous city of Asunción and heading to bustling Miami, Florida, but they were going to make a few stops before they reached their final destination.
The captain’s name was Larry Campbell, and he was joined by a trusted crew consisting of his copilot, flight engineer, and a team of Chilean flight attendants who were prepared for any sort of trouble. Or, so they thought.
An airport in La Paz, Bolivia, was the first of two stops before reaching Asunción. The captain radioed to the control tower to let them know they were arriving to refuel. At the time, everything on board was fine.
The flight attendants were serving the final round of drinks before the plane reached the tarmac. As the highest international airport in the world, the mountains surrounding La Paz were covered with snow and ice. Ten minutes before they touched down, disaster struck.
Without warning, the plane careened directly into the side of Mount Illimani, the second highest mountain in Bolivia, striking jagged rocks and sharp ice before exploding. There were no survivors. The Air Force immediately sent troops to scan the area.
Even with the specialized training the troops had, many of them suffered awful altitude sickness. Visibility was almost nothing, and after a few days of searching, the whole thing was called off. Still, they knew the answers were out there.
The black box recording device that all planes are equipped with could’ve given investigators answers. Over the years that followed, small pieces of debris — although never the black box — were found scattered around the mountain. But, something astounding happened in 2016.
Two hikers from Boston, Dan Futrell and Isaac Stoner, were reading a Wikipedia page dedicated to unrecovered black boxes. When they learned of the flight that hit Mount Illimani, they took on the investigation themselves.
Having almost no experience traversing the rugged mountainous terrain, the men named their black box-hunting mission “Operation Tunupa” after the Incan god of knowledge. To up their odds of finding the box, they tried something other search teams hadn’t.
Most expeditions, naturally, searched the immediate area around the crash site, assuming anything worth finding would be strewn about close. Dan and Isaac, however, explored 3,000 feet down the mountain, and they quickly realized how important that route was.
Because the Boeing 727 slammed into the mountainside at speeds of over 500 miles per hour, the wreckage was scattered for miles around, making the search incredibly difficult. But, the two men managed to discover debris the Air Force couldn’t.
They even found the remains of the coveted black box! Thirty-one years of exposure to brutal weather conditions, however, left it in shambles. But, as important a discovery as the box was, that didn’t hold a candle to what they found next.
There were two sealed suitcases lodged between some ice-covered boulders. When they opened the first one, they saw piles of poached crocodile skins worth millions of dollars. Still, they weren’t prepared for the surprise inside suitcase number two.
Their jaws dropped as they stared in awe down stacks upon stacks of crisp bills. They had no idea at the time, but they were looking at $20 million. Who would be carrying that kind of cash on a flight?
Dan and Isaac later learned from authorities the suitcase of money belonged to a well-known mob boss and drug dealer named Enrique Matalón Sr., who had been traveling with his family. The crash could very well have been orchestrated by a rival mob boss.
The National Transportation Safety Board anxiously went through the wreckage the men found, hoping the black box had answers to the decades-old mystery. However, the box was not the in-flight recorder like they hoped, but instead something quite bizarre.
It was an 18-minute recording of an episode of the show I Spy dubbed in Spanish. This reveal was, quite disappointingly, not the breaking development authorities hoped for. In the end, questions remained.
Dan and Isaac definitely made a discovery that shed serious light on the mysterious history of Eastern Airlines Flight 980. Two German hikers, however, made an equally important discovery that changed history back in 1991.
On September 19th, 1991, German hikers Helmut and Erika Simon set off on an expedition through the snowcapped peaks of the Italian Alps. The Simons were looking to have an unforgettable experience, and by day’s end, the couple had gotten exactly that.
As they navigated the spectacular vistas of the region’s Otztal Alps, the Simons — encouraged by years of hiking experience — tackled some of the range’s more treacherous terrain. And so, the couple abandoned their planned route and began exploring off trail.
Nearing the summit of a large mountain, the Simons noticed a strange-looking shape jutting out of the earth. The couple approached the object, and what they found there chilled them more than any snow ever could…
It was a human corpse! The Simons were understandably shaken by their discovery, which they believed to be the body of a fellow hiker that had met an unfortunate end. But when the couple contacted authorities, they soon learned there was a lot more to this body.
Just after the excavation team arrived a violent storm swept through the mountains, making the recovery of the body incredibly difficult. After three long days of on-and-off digging, rescue workers were finally able to unearth the frozen corpse.
News broke quickly of the daring mountainside recovery, with one Austrian reporter dubbing the deceased mountaineer “Otzi the Iceman” after the location in which he was found. But as authorities began to inspect the recovered body, they realized that Otzi was no ordinary hiker…
The Times of Israel
Otzi was quickly brought to the University of Innsbruck, where archaeologist Konrad Spindler examined his body and made a startling discovery. As it turns out, Otzi was actually an ancient mummy cadaver from the Bronze Age, making him an astonishing 5,300 years old!
Otzi’s body was incredibly well-preserved thanks to the wet mountain conditions. Not only did this enable scientists to run an advanced test on the remains, but it also allowed them to create a 3D reconstruction of what Otzi might’ve looked like.
Bonnie Brennan / Smithsonian Mag
According to the data taken from his body, Otzi stood 5’5″, weighed 84 pounds, and was 45 years of age at the time of his death. Scientists also deduced that Otzi had brown eyes, a thick beard, and generally maintained an overall haggard appearance. But the revelations about Otzi weren’t solely cosmetic.
Mother Nature Network
From the 30 different pollen samples taken from Otzi’s stomach, scientists determined that the iceman had perished sometime in the spring or summer. This information, coupled with the fact that Otzi had eaten an ibex a mere two hours before his death, allowed scientists to trace his travels through the region as well as understand some of the diseases he suffered from during his lifetime.
Even after thousands of years in the snow, tests on the body revealed that Otzi had been plagued with a myriad of ailments, including whipworm, cardiovascular disease, and lactose intolerance. Otzi also suffered from the earliest-known case of Lyme’s Disease, though this wouldn’t be the iceman’s only historical first…
Der Mann aus dem Eis
Thanks to the incredible condition of his skin, scientists were able to identify a number of markings on Otzi’s body as primitive tattoos, which were likely used to mark acupuncture points. Not only did this make Otzi the oldest tattooed mummy to date, but it also indicated that acupuncture was practiced 2,000 years before first believed.
Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson
Despite this wealth of information derived from Otzi’s body, it took a full decade before the mystery surrounding the iceman’s death was solved. Though scientists originally believed he had died from exposure, new studies conducted in 2001 revealed a grisly truth behind Otzi’s untimely demise…
Using advanced x-ray technology, scientists discovered an arrowhead lodged in Otzi’s left shoulder. Given the location of the shot, the arrow would’ve pierced a vital artery, likely causing Otzi to bleed to death. It wasn’t a snowstorm that killed Otzi: he was murdered!
Questions swirled about this newfound revelation, with scientists scrambling to find a motivation for the murder of the iceman. One theory suggested that Otzi had been shot while raiding a rival tribe, while another claimed that Otzi had been the victim of ritual sacrifice. Ultimately, though, the items found alongside Otzi’s body provided the biggest insight into his death.
The iceman was discovered with a number of valuables in his possession, including tools, furs, and a copper axe. Seeing that the killer had simply left these items alongside the body, scientists deduced that the killing was likely of a personal nature. Otzi’s murder was solved, but one final realization about the mummy proved deadly for all those involved.
In 2004, 13 years after he and Erika first discovered Otzi, Helmut Simon died in a freak accident during a trek through the Austrian Alps. Not long after, Konrad Spindler, the archaeologist that first examined Otzi, also perished under mysterious circumstances. Fueled by these unexplained deaths, rumors began to circulate that, like the ancient pharaohs of Egypt, the iceman was cursed.
Speculation about the curse only increased when one of the Alpine guides that excavated Otzi was killed in an avalanche, and a forensic expert that once touched Otzi’s body died in a car accident. To this day, seven deaths have been attributed to the curse of Otzi.
Those looking to experience the wonder of Otzi firsthand – and potentially invite a curse or two – could visit the South Tyrol Museum of Archaeology in Bolzano, Italy, where he stood on display. A memorial was also constructed at the site of Otzi’s discovery to commemorate the historic find.
Viennaweekends / WordPress
Though Otzi’s story may be a long and controversial one, there’s no denying his importance to the archaeological community. As scientists continue to peel back the layers of the iceman’s past, hopefully, we too will learn more about the secrets of our history.
Like recently as the first nation indigenous to British Columbia’s Great Bear Rainforest, the Heiltsuk people have laid claim to the remote Triquet Island for nearly 5,000 years. But archaeologists have dismissed their claim of ownership for one glaring reason…
Simon Fraser University
The continental glacier that formed over Canada during the last Ice Age would’ve also covered Triquet Island, making it uninhabitable. But even with the facts stacked against the Heiltsuk, a small group of researchers took it upon themselves to uncover the truth once and for all.
The Robinson Library
The archaeologists began an extensive excavation of the remote island in the hope of discovering traces of a past civilization. What they found there not only shocked the entire archaeological community, but it also changed history forever.
Beneath several layers of earth, they found remnants of an ancient, wood-burning hearth. But how could this be? According to researchers, it would’ve been impossible for humans to dig their way through the glacial ice to get to the soil below.
As they continued digging, researchers unearthed additional artifacts, including tools and weapons. This discovery stumped the team as the Heiltsuk people traditionally didn’t use tools of this kind.
The Heiltsuk people had derived their food source from fishing and smoking salmon, utilizing small, precise tools to harvest the fish. The tools and weapons found were much larger and likely would’ve been used to hunt large sea mammals, such as seals, sea lions, and walruses.
What’s more, the team also uncovered shards of obsidian, a glass-like rock only found in areas of heavy volcanic activity. This discovery also puzzled the archaeologists, as there were no known volcanoes near that part of British Columbia. So, how did this rock — and these people — get there?
The historians deduced that whoever left these artifacts must have traversed the land bridge that existed between Siberia and Alaska during prehistoric times. Yet researchers still needed cold-hard facts…
Luckily, a closer inspection of the hearth revealed ancient charcoal remains, which the archaeologists quickly brought to the lab for carbon dating. When they received the results, the researchers couldn’t believe their eyes: everything they knew was a lie.
According to the carbon dating report, these bits of charcoal were an astonishing 14,000 years old, making them the oldest carbon remains ever to be discovered in North America.
Even by global standards, this was an extraordinary find. After all, these simple pieces of charcoal were older than the Great Pyramid of Giza and even predated the invention of the wheel! But that’s not the most remarkable fact about this discovery.
The 14,000-year-old discovery placed the earliest Heiltsuk at Triquet Island 2,000 years before the end of the ice age. Therefore, the island couldn’t have been covered by the massive continental glacier. And that’s not all.
Since Triquet Island was surrounded on all sides by water, the early Heiltsuk would’ve used boats to traverse the open waters. Because boats were not believed to have been invented until centuries later, this presented the possibility that early humans could’ve navigated along the North American coastlines in order to settle the continent.
This meant that the Heiltsuk settled the area 2,000 years before initially believed. If this was the case, then these early men likely crossed paths with some of history’s most formidable beasts.
As the Heiltsuk people made their way south from the land bridge, they likely had to fend off giant creatures like mastodons, woolly mammoths, and giant sloths. But somehow, these humans survived, and it’s likely for one crucial reason.
Thanks to the Pacific Ocean itself, the sea level at Triquet Island remained constant for over 15,000 years. So as the sea gradually eroded the surrounding islands, the great beasts of the Pacific Northwest were kept at bay, leaving the Heiltsuk to a peaceful, secluded existence.
The most astounding realization that’s come to light is the fact that the Heiltsuk people were able to preserve their history orally for nearly 14,000 years. However, they are still being deprived of their history’s legitimacy.
When the media caught wind of the story, they seemed to focus more on what the discovery meant for the scientific community rather than acknowledge the rich history of the Heiltsuk. To many, the media’s portrayal of the nation was seen as highly disrespectful.
As a result, the University of Victoria student Alisha Gauvreau — who was present during the excavation — has dedicated herself to shifting the focus of the dialogue toward the Heiltsuk people.
The Heiltsuk claim to Triquet Island stands as one of the oldest land-ownership claims in the world. Not only does this discovery speak volumes about the strength of the Heiltsuk people, but it also represents the indomitable spirit of mankind.
kris krüg / Flickr