Friday, December 31, 2010

Saint Clemente

On this day in 1972, Roberto Clemente, future Hall of Fame baseball player, was killed along with four others when the cargo plane in which he was traveling crashed off the coast of Puerto Rico. Clemente was on his way to deliver relief supplies to Nicaragua following an earthquake there a week earlier.

That baseball season, Clemente had gotten his 3,000th hit -- in the final game of the season -- for the Pittsburgh Pirates.

He was a hero in his native Puerto Rico, where he spent much of the off-season doing charity work. Some of that work had taken him to Nicaragua, so Clemente was particularly distressed when he learned that very little aid was getting to victims of a devastating December 23 earthquake near Managua.

He decided to collect supplies on his own and personally deliver them. At the airport in San Juan, he discovered there were far more supplies than could be carried in the plane he had available. A man there offered to fly the supplies to Nicaragua for $4,000, not telling Clemente he had no crew for the plane.

Clemente agreed, and the man scrambled to find a pilot. It was later determined that the plane had been overloaded.

As the plane took off, sounds of engine failure were heard as it went down the runway. It reached an altitude of only 200 feet before exploding and plunging into the ocean. Rescue workers were sent out immediately, but the task was next to impossible in the darkness. The bodies were never found.

The news hit Puerto Rico hard--one friend of Clemente described it as the "night that happiness died."

In 1973, Clemente was posthumously inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame. In 2002, he was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom.