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Airline Crash in Bolivia a Year Ago May Never Be Solved

December 28, 1985

WASHINGTON (AP) _ When Eastern Airlines Flight 980 crashed in the Bolivian Andes with William Kelly aboard, his wife Judith resolved to climb to the crash site, say her last goodbye and perhaps find clues about the cause of the accident.

Mrs. Kelly, who made the ascent to the snow-covered wreckage last summer, says a year later that she cherishes the trek for affording her the chance to ″share that spot″ where her husband and 28 other people perished. Their bodies, believed buried under snow and ice, have never been recovered.

But she and U.S. government investigators have concluded that no one may ever know why the Eastern Boeing 727 veered off course on New Year’s Day of 1985 and slammed into a 19,600-foot mountain during its approach to the Bolivian capital of La Paz.

It was the first of many airline crashes that have claimed nearly 2,000 lives this year, and is one of the most mysterious.

Any secrets about the crash are buried beneath snow at an elevation where excavation is virtually impossible, says John Young, the National Transportation Safety Board investigator in charge of the case.

An NTSB expedition climbed to the crash site last October, but could find nothing to indicate why Flight 980 was about 12 miles off course when the accident occurred.

Mrs. Kelly was in Ascension, Paraguay, when the jetliner carrying her husband descended from 23,000 feet and hit the side of Mt. Illimani, a 19,600- foot peak that towers over the mountain-locked Bolivian capital.

The impact was so great that the plane virtually disintegrated. Fragments were scattered over a wide area under seven to 12 feet of snow, investigators believe.

When word reached Mrs. Kelly that there were no survivors, she decided immediately to climb to the wreckage. It would be an arduous trek of three or four days, from La Paz over Mt. Illimani and part way down the other side.

An experienced guide had almost died making the same trip a few days after the crash.

″I was married to a fabulous person for 16 years and I couldn’t just not go. ... My purpose was personal peace. ... I wanted to be there and share that spot,″ she said in a recent interview at her home in the Washington suburb of Arlington, Va.

The Kellys had had a long association with South America, starting when they met as Peace Corps volunteers in Peru. They had returned to the United States and later went to Paraguay, where William Kelly was Peace Corps director.

Mrs. Kelly hired the same guide who had made the trek and began her preparations.

Not a large woman, she began aerobic and health gym exercisess to gain weight and strength. She bought mountain climbing gear and flew to Alaska for a six-week climbing course. She flew to La Paz and spent weeks getting used to the high altitude.

Then in July, the best season for climbing, Mrs. Kelly, the guide and a helper drove five hours from La Paz to a base camp where they stayed overnight. For the next 21/2 days, they climbed to the ″saddle″ of the 19,600-foot peak and down part of the other side to the spot where the plane had plowed into a glacier.

″I could see one piece of wreckage across the valley, but mostly it was a flat snowfield,″ she recalls. They took pictures and gathered a few small pieces of the aircraft.

In the chill silence of the mountain slope, Mrs. Kelly read aloud some letters from friends to her dead husband.

Back home, she began pressuring the NTSB to send investigators up the mountain. The board agreed, but its team of experts did not get organized until October. By then, climbing conditions were bad and getting worse.

An expedition that had provisions for three weeks was forced to reduce its mission to less than a week when several members became severely ill from the strain of the high-altitude climb.

The team returned with 15 rolls of film and additional pieces of wreckage, but they could not find the ″black box″ cockpit and flight recorders that might have yielded valuable clues about the cause of the crash. Young says there is little else that investigators have to study.

There are no radar tracks that would show the plane’s final path of flight. The plane’s last radio transmission gave no indication the pilot was having any problems or that the plane was off course.

Was the crew trying to avoid a storm in the darkness but unaware of the closeness of the mountain? Did navigational systems malfunction? Or was there another reason?

NTSB investigators say they have no plans to return to the site, but Mrs. Kelly does.

″I definitely will go back up,″ she said. ″Not to look for the flight recorders, but it’s just a place that I want to hold close to me. It’s a beautiful place.″