Winthrop Senior Killed In Plane Crash in Andes

Gabriel Piedrahita '96, a 22-year-old Winthrop House resident, died on December 20 in the crash of American Airlines Flight 965 bound for Cali, Colombia.

Piedrahita, who attended high school in Miami, was on his way to visit his parents in Cali when the plane went down.

Housemates and friends of Piedrahita attended a house meeting last night to receive information about Piedrahita's death and to recall their time with him.

"Gabriel was loved and admired by many in Winthrop House. He was an inspiring thinker and a beautiful person and was a central figure in the life of Winthrop House." Winthrop House Senior Tutor Greg Mobley said in a telephone interview yesterday.

A memorial service for Piedrahita, an applied math concentrator, is tentatively scheduled for next weekend.

Piedrahita's father, Francisco, mother, Claudia, and brothers, Vincente and Sandro, are expected to attend. Sandro Piedrahita graduated in the class of 1990.

John E. Tessitore '96, one of Piedrahita's roommates and closest friends, said that more than 15 of Piedrahita's friends returned to Harvard from winter break upon hearing of the crash.

"People flew back, drove back, came back from all over. We were camped out in our common room watching the news. We had five phones in our common room and we were calling Mexico, Puerto Rico, Jordan, everywhere trying to get information and talking with people. It was very emotional," Tessitore said.

He said that the friends gathered in Winthrop did not receive official word of Piedrahita's death until about 11:30 p.m. on Friday, December 22. "Once we got word from the family, we waited about 10 seconds and then we turned around and hit the phones again and were on the phones until 1 a.m. talking about it with other friends," Tessitore said.

"Gabriel was the kind of person that everybody--really everybody--knows. You can't help but love Gabriel. He's a character and we love him, and we miss him terribly," Tessitore said.

"We're trying to find a way to cope with five of us in the room and not six of us," he added.

Tessitore said the response to the death "has been pretty incredible in terms of the number of people calling and in terms of the house masters and tutors, who have been very, very helpful."

Duane A. Cranston' 96 another roomate, extended a request from Piedrahita's mother to write down memories of his college years to share with family members. Mobley said a scrapbook of these memories will be gathered for the family.

Piedrahita's other roommates are Paul K. Kim '96, Douglas W. Scott '96 and Brendan D. Sheehan '96, Joshua I. Solomon '96 was a member of the rooming group sophomore year.

The house plans to create a fund of some sort in Piedrahita's memory. Donations in his name may be made through the Winthrop House Commitee.

Following last night's meeting, Winthrop House Master Paul D. Hanson praised members of Piedrahita's rooming group for the support they had given others and each other.

"I am deeply moved by the manner in which the roommates and suitemates set to work notifying friends and doing everything they could to console others in the face of their own grief," Hanson said.

President Neil L. Rudenstine, who has written a letter of condolence to Piedrahita's family, expressed his sadness at the tragedy in an interview Wednesday.

"It's terrible.... This is just the worst sort of thing. It couldn't be more devastating," Rudenstine said.

Piedrahita was traveling from Miami to Cali with his childhood friend Ariel Felton, who attended Wellesley College.

The crash was the deadliest involving a United States airliner since a Pan Am flight exploded over Lockerbie, Scotland, on Dec. 21, 1988. Terrorists were blamed for that crash, which killed 270 people.

Authorities said a full investigation into the causes of the crash would not be completed for months.

But a report released by the Colombian government last Friday after a review of a transcript of the cockpit conversation during the half-hour before the crash indicated that it may have been the result of human error.

The report ruled out sabotage, bad weather, language difficulties and a malfunction of the Boeing 757's systems as possible causes of the crash.

According to transcripts obtained from the plane's two "black box" recording devices, the crew in the plane's cockpit was engaged in a discussion of a "non-pertinent" nature. News reports said the crew were discussing labor issues rather than engaging in pre-landing procedures.

According to the report, the flight crew mistakenly set the plane's automatic pilot for a navigational aid outside the city, causing the plane to turn off course.

After a brief discussion of how to return to the flight path, the crew steered the plane toward a mountain and attempted to fly over it, but failed to clear by 200 feet.

An article in yesterday's Boston Globe reported that American Airlines has released a statement saying alcohol was found in the blood of the plane's captain.

The statement said that further tests would be conducted to determine whether the pilot had consumed the alcohol or whether its presence was the natural result of "chemical processes following death by blunt trauma."

Because of the mountainous terrain, recovering victims was difficult and notification of some families was delayed for several days.

Tessitore said house tutors brought meals to their Winthrop suite while they waited for word and grieved with friends. "We're trying to figure out how to go back to the library--if there's a way you can do that after something like this. So far we haven't found it," he said