It was dark in the tiny Oyster Bay community of Cove Neck, with thick fog and a light drizzle.
Overhead, a passenger jet that had been circling the skies above the East Coast was entering its final moments.
The plane had taken off from Colombia that afternoon with more than 12,000 gallons of jet fuel, but had been placed in holding patterns in the air several times as poor visibility led to traffic jams at local airports. It had attempted to land at JFK International Airport but missed, and was circling around one last time.
On board Avianca Flight 52 were 149 passengers and nine crew members. The travelers had been shown a Sean Connery movie and eaten their in-flight meal (chicken in coach and trout in first class, the New York Times reported).
They had no idea that the plane was out of fuel.
FULL VIDEO - After Avianca: Memories of 1990's fateful Flight 52
Minutes after 9:30 p.m. on Jan. 25, 1990, air traffic controllers lost radar contact with Flight 52. Without warning from the cockpit, the jet sheared off the tops of some trees -- hickory, oak, maple -- then rammed into a hillside on a residential Cove Neck street.
The nose of the plane came to rest feet from a home on the top of a hill on Tennis Court Road. The impact fractured the home's wooden deck.
The fuselage tore apart along a wooded hillside, a tangled mess of wires, parts and passengers. The plane's tail straddled the narrow street that ran alongside the hill.
Jeffrey Race, 26 at the time, was a lieutenant with New York City Emergency Medical Services and a volunteer Oyster Bay firefighter. He lived with his parents on Gracewood Court, just around the corner from the crash site. He heard word of the plane crash from the fire department and hopped in his car.
In the fog of the first few moments after the crash, the precise location was unclear -- but an arriving police officer passed along a report that the plane had gone down on Tennis Court Road.
Race and the officer drove their vehicles in the dark along the hilly, narrow road. Then their headlights illuminated the red and white tail of a 707 jet.
"I ran towards the tail section to assess what was going on," says Race. "I ran back to his car, told him that we needed to request as many resources possible."
Race headed up the sloping driveway of the property where the cockpit had come to rest. A woman who lived there came out, and Race recalls that she said in disbelief, "There's a plane in my backyard!"
She asked what she could do, and Race says he told her to bring out any blankets she could spare. Then he grabbed his gear and headed into the wreckage to look for signs of life.
"It was completely dead silent -- but here's a 707 lying in a backyard, completely broken apart," Race says. "When people heard my voice, that's when they started calling out, and screaming, and calling for help."
The crew members in the cockpit were dead, along with nearly all the passengers in first class.
"I remember looking down, and seeing a guy face-up, and there were wires and cables. And I started to try and help him, and he told me, 'No, go get some of the children out of the wreckage,'" says Race.
Passengers throughout the plane ranged in age from 4 months to 77 years old.
VIDEO: Approximate flight path of Avianca Flight 52
Less than 10 miles from the crash scene, at News 12 Long Island's studio in Woodbury, anchor and reporter Scott Feldman had just wrapped up a story about a school budget. When word of the plane crash reached the studio, Feldman says he and cameraman Gary D'Amaro raced to the scene. They were among the first to arrive.
"There were no streetlights on Tennis Court Road to see what was going on, so you were kind of feeling your way around," Feldman says.
News 12's live coverage all night at the scene helped spread word of the catastrophe across the Island -- and the world. But the cameras also served another purpose in the chaotic immediate aftermath that night.
"When we got up to the plane that had broken apart, the first responders on the scene asked Gary to turn on his light so they could see what was going on. They didn't even have lights at that point because they were the first people to get there," says Feldman. "He turned on the light on his camera, and we could see the people in the plane, and that's when the first responders started pulling people out, including young children."
A crush of emergency crews began to flood the neighborhood. Tennis Court Road is noose-shaped with a loop at the end and no outlet, causing vehicles to clog the roadway and adding to the chaos of the crash response.
The family of tennis star John McEnroe owned a home on Tennis Court Road. Their lawn became a triage area for people who were pulled from the plane.
"I went over to try to talk to some of the people that were injured that were able to communicate, and I said, 'What happened? Was there any kind of an explosion on the plane, was there any kind of terrorist activity, anything going on?'" Feldman recalls. "And they said, 'No, nothing.' They heard nothing from the pilots, they heard nothing from the flight attendants. Right before the plane crashed, it was completely silent."
Meanwhile, first responders were racing to extricate people from the mangled aircraft.
"I was in a bubble around that airplane. I had constantly people coming up to me, I never left that front area," says Race. "I heard the sirens going on for what seemed like forever, helicopters coming in."
Some survivors were evacuated by helicopter from the scene. The bodies of deceased passengers were respectfully covered with blankets.
Race's father, a pilot for American Airlines who had flown 707 jets, was at the scene to offer his knowledge and assistance. His mother also came to the crash site to tend to victims.
Race says he remained at the scene until midday the following day.
In the end, 73 people aboard the plane died. There were 85 survivors who were taken to multiple hospitals.
News 12 Vintage: Scott Feldman at Avianca crash scene - 1990
Genie Principe and her husband were living in Brooklyn, but they were under contract to buy a house on Tennis Court Road that sits directly across from the crash site. In an instant, the home where they were preparing to raise their family had become the site of a major disaster.
Watching the news coverage of the crash, Principe recalls saying to her husband, "I think this is our house." They eventually got in touch with the homeowner -- a woman in her 80s who lived alone with her dog, Principe says.
"She heard like a whoosh, her power went out, and then like a bang, just like a car crash," Principe recalls.
They hadn't yet moved in, but because Principe and her husband had already registered a car to their new address, they numbered among the Tennis Court Road residents who were allowed access to the restricted site in the aftermath of the crash.
"I've never seen a sight like that in my life," she says. "I mean, this enormous airplane, straddling the road."
She recalls that it was tough getting in and out of the area. Neighbors volunteered to pick up groceries and supplies for the residents who were staying in their homes.
Survivors -- some of them New Yorkers, others Colombia natives -- began the long process of physically recovering in hospitals across Nassau and into Suffolk. For many, the mental recovery would take years. Long Islanders rallied around them, donating blood in droves.
News 12 Vintage - Long Islanders donate blood in wake of Avianca crash - 1990
"Everybody came together, it was quite spectacular -- all across Cove Neck, doing what they could to help the people who were coming to the rescue," says Mel Mooney, then an Oyster Bay resident who now lives on Tennis Court Road. Her husband Bill Mooney worked at News 12 Long Island for many years.
Long Island fire departments also reported a spike in volunteers in the wake of the disaster.
The cause of the crash and all of its contributing factors would be the subject of a meticulous federal investigation for months afterward -- but the lack of flames after the impact offered an early indication.
"When I got up to the wreckage, I thought, 'What caused this plane to crash, and why wasn't it on fire?" says Feldman. "And we only found out later that the reason it wasn't on fire was because it was out of fuel. There wasn't a lick of jet fuel on that plane -- and thank God, because if there had been, it would have been an inferno and there would have been no survivors. I truly believe that."
The plane's data recorders were recovered, but they had not been functioning. The crew's conversations in the cockpit and with air traffic controllers on the ground instead shed light on what went wrong.
Scrutiny emerged early on over the failure of the crew to officially declare a fuel emergency. The transcript of communications showed that Avianca Flight 52 had said that it needed "priority" to land, said it was "running out of fuel," and could not make it to its alternate airport in Boston. The flight reported that it lost two of its engines -- then lost radar contact.
In its final report into the incident, released on April 30, 1991, the National Transportation Safety Board declared that "the probable cause of this accident was the failure of the flight crew to adequately manage the airplane's fuel load, and their failure to communicate an emergency fuel situation to air traffic control before fuel exhaustion occurred. Contributing to the accident was the flight crew's failure to use an airline operational control dispatch system to assist them during the international flight into a high-density airport in poor weather. Also contributing to the accident was inadequate traffic flow management by the Federal Aviation Administration and the lack of standardized understandable terminology for pilots and controllers for minimum and emergency fuel states."
READ: NTSB Investigation into Flight 52 Crash
In the wake of the Avianca crash, the FAA rolled out standardized terms for fuel situations and asked that air traffic controllers get flight crews to clarify ambiguous transmissions about possible emergencies.
The emergency response on the ground was also the subject of investigation. A report by Nassau police concluded that "many, many lives" were saved by volunteers and responders -- but also that a "failure to limit access" to the site by people who did not need to be there hampered rescue efforts.
Faulty communication among responders was also cited, as crews struggled with an antiquated radio system and clogged channels.
Emergency training changes, radio network improvements and an updated dispatch system were all implemented locally in the years after the crash.
News 12 Vintage - NTSB issues report on Avianca Flight 52 - 1991
Pillars with signs that say "Private Driveway" flank a portion of Tennis Court Road today. There is no memorial to mark the spot where Flight 52 came to rest. But over the years, neighbors say that mourners occasionally come to the street pay their respects.
"Not so much anymore," says Principe. "But every year, people would come on the anniversary, on a little pilgrimage to leave flowers at the site."
Principe and her family moved into their new home on Tennis Court Road a few months after the crash. Even then, she says there were some remnants of debris in the woods on their property – pieces of police tape and shoes.
At the 10- and 20-year anniversaries of the crash, memorial services were held in Oyster Bay. News 12's cameras were rolling as survivors were reunited with the responders who rescued them.
News 12 Vintage - 10-year anniversary of Avianca Crash - 2000
There were no public memorial services scheduled this year to mark the 30th anniversary. News 12 attempted to contact crash survivors, but was not successful.
In the decades since Flight 52, Race has responded to multiple major disasters, including the Sept. 11 terror attacks and the deadly 2001 plane crash in Queens. He and his family now live in North Carolina where he continues to work as a first responder. But he says he'll never forget the night that a jet crashed in his neighborhood.
"It's just unbelievable that it was actually occurring right there in my own town," he says.
SLIDE PHOTO: Site in 1990 and 2020
Greg Cannella: Reporter, Producer, Photographer, Editor
Colleen Harrington: Managing Editor, Producer, Writer
Frank Pokorney: Executive Producer
Chris R. Vaccaro: VP of Digital
Charles Bucci: Graphic Design
Timothy Ivers: Archival Video Editor
Special Thanks: Scott Feldman, Douglas Richards, Michelle Romano, Brian Endres