By JOHN DORSCHNER
Tropic staff writer
Every workday, as Jeff Houlihan stares at his radar monitor in a large, darkened room in California, he is haunted by memories of the Saturday afternoon a year ago when he looked at that screen showing the Florida Straits and watched men die.
``I think about it all the time. I can't forget.''
Houlihan didn't become a witness to history by chance: That afternoon, Feb. 24, 1996, the State Department, the U.S. Air Force and the Federal Aviation Administration had ordered the nation's vast array of electronic tracking devices to pay special attention to the Straits between Key West and Cuba. At March Air Force Base in Riverside, Calif., where a U.S. Customs control center monitors the perimeter of the United States, Houlihan was instructed to watch the Straits closely -- not only for the usual purpose of monitoring drug planes, but because some Washington officials were worried something awful was about to happen there. He didn't know what exactly, but he knew it had to do with a flight of small planes piloted by Brothers to the Rescue.
The Brothers' planes were easy to see on the radar screen: plodding Cessnas denoted by orange squares, each flashing a self-identifying transponder code. About 3 p.m., they were moving south, but still far outside Cuba's 12-mile territorial limit, when suddenly Houlihan saw shadowy white X's with no transponder codes zooming northward at more than 400 miles an hour. MiGs!
Frantically, Houlihan called the U.S. Air Force control room in Panama City, Fla., that is responsible for the air defense of the Southeastern United States. He blurted the news about the MiGs. ``Yeah, we know all about it,'' Houlihan says he was told. ``We're taking care of it.''
Houlihan went back to watching his screen, expecting to see U.S. fighters roar out of Homestead or Key West to chase the bad guys away. That never happened. Instead, as the shimmering X's zipped across the screen, the orange square flashing transponder code 1223 disappeared. Seven minutes later, 1224 vanished. They had only been blips of light, but Houlihan knew what he was witnessing, and he took electronic snapshots ``to have proof of what I saw as cold- blooded murder.''
The families of the four who died have focused their anger on Castro and now work tirelessly to expose his guilt to the world.
But for Jose Basulto, founder of Brothers to the Rescue and the only surviving pilot of the ill-fated flight, Castro is ``the executioner. But he must have had help.''
For co-conspirators, Basulto looks to Washington. How could the all- powerful United States not have known about the impending attack? How could it have done nothing to stop it?
Today, Basulto is an anguished and obsessed man. He was the one who led two young pilots that afternoon south toward Cuba. He was the one who violated Cuban airspace. Yet he survived as four people he knew very well died.
Some of his long-time sympathizers believe that Basulto is prone to wild conspiracy theories because he is racked by survivor's guilt, but he emphatically denies that: "I don't blame myself. I've been a survivor many times before, when others died. I do not have survivor's guilt of any kind. . . . God chose the one to live who could point to the truth of what happened there."
The truth, Basulto believes, is that the Cuban government and some officials in the U.S. government conspired to shoot down the planes.
Why, he wonders, was the FBI paying an apparent Cuban agent to spy on Brothers from within? Why was he never informed a Cuban air force general had told a U.S. envoy that Cuba was ready to shoot down the Brothers' planes? Why did radar operators around the country watch MiGs scramble toward his plane and never try to warn him?
He discounts the argument that he has only himself to blame for this noncommunication -- that he was not told of the danger because he had heatedly ignored warnings against violating Cuban airspace in the past: ``I listen to warnings,'' he says. ``I won't listen to threats.''
At times, Basulto backs away from alleging out-and-out conspiracy. But not far away: ``I'm sure that behind this there was at least intentional, gross negligence on the part of some people in the U.S. government. I don't know who they are. I haven't been able to prove a conspiracy as such, but the possibility exists.''
So he keeps calling for investigations -- by Congress, by the Defense Department, by journalists -- to find the answers to questions that Washington seems reluctant to give out: ``They invoke `national security' to cover the shame of their actions.''
Nicholas Burns, State Department spokesman, responds this way: ``We have nothing but sympathy for the victims and their families. This was a terrible tragedy, but one for which U.S. officials bear no responsibility. Any allegation to the contrary is irresponsible and totally unfounded.''
Carroll says that Cuban air force Gen. Arnaldo Tamayo, best known as Cuba's cosmonaut, ranted angrily about the Brothers' flights -- particularly one flight in July 1995, when Basulto had flown low over the heart of Havana, dropping leaflets, and two flights in January 1996, in which Brothers' leaflets had drifted over a large area of central Cuba.
Basulto never denied the July flyover -- he even had a television journalist on board -- but insisted that the January flights were outside of Cuba's 12-mile territorial limit, and that a strong northerly wind carried the leaflets to Cuba. Tamayo, however, declared heatedly that these ``provocations'' were being``completely ignored'' by the United States. If the United States did not stop these flights, Tamayo warned, Cuba had the power to shoot down the planes. Carroll says Tamayo asked: ``What do you think would be the United States' reaction if we did?''
Carroll responded that he thought that Cuba would be ``branded brigands'' by the world community, but he promised to take the question back to authorities in Washington. The admiral viewed Tamayo's words as a specific ``calculated warning'' that if the Brothers' flights continued, Cuba would act.
On Feb. 18 or 19, Carroll met with the State Department's experts on Cuba and passed this message along. He says the experts didn't seem particularly interested: ``Yes, we know. We've heard.''
A Washington source who insists on being identified only as a ``U.S. official'' says that Carroll's message was not nearly as exact as he claims, but was instead only a brief reference to Cuba's anger with Basulto, mentioned among many other items. In fact, this official adds, Washington had received repeated warnings from the Cubans -- warnings that if Basulto flew over Cuba, he might be shot down.
``But the context was always flying in Cuban airspace,'' says the official, ``not international waters.'' These warnings, say the official, had been transmitted to Basulto. The problem, says the official, was that the administration's relationship with Basulto was far less than cordial. The Brothers' leader had been criticizing the White House since it had announced that rafters would be repatriated to Cuba. After he flew some Miami lawyers to the Guantanamo refugee camps to investigate conditions there, Washington had stopped further Brothers' flights to the base. Then came his flight over Havana, which caused the FAA to yank his pilot's license. Basulto later got it back through a court order.
A U.S. official says Washington was so concerned about Basulto: "One, because we have to worry about the man's safety. Two, flying over Cuba is clearly a violation of international law. And three, obviously it affects foreign policy . . . It risked provoking an international confrontation."
Another U.S. official says that Basulto had responded hostilely to the repeated warnings about flying into Cuban airspace: ``He was going ballistic every time we talked about it.''
In the fall of 1995, says this official, ``a conscious decision'' was reached not to admonish Basulto further because he was ``so agitated that we were more likely to provoke him than to quiet him down.''
Basulto: ``They've always been against me in Washington. It's xenophobia. They're against immigrants. They see me as a promoter of immigration from Cuba.''
Meanwhile, warning signs of Cuban muscle-flexing increased. According to one U.S. official, American intelligence reported that, some weeks before the incident, MiGs had practiced shooting down slow-moving airplanes.
Jeane Kirkpatrick, Reagan's former U.N. ambassador who is now a member of a conservative think tank, says she had lunch with a Clinton administration official knowledgeable about Cuban affairs several days before the shooting.
She says the official, whom she doesn't want to identify publicly, told her ``he was so concerned he had not been able to sleep at all. He was convinced something dreadful was going to happen to the Brothers' planes.''
Kirkpatrick asked him how he was so certain, and he didn't respond. She assumed that meant he was privy to confidential intelligence reports, and she didn't press him.
He had told his wife, Ana, that he was going to leave at 3 a.m. on a three-day trip to transport a boat to Key West, a job he said would earn him $2,000. Ana didn't like the idea of the separation, but he insisted he had to go to pay for some furniture they had just bought. Ana reminded him to take his cell phone and its battery charger, so she could be in touch, and he promised to do so.
In the past year, their relationship has become an oft-told tale: The handsome, body-builder defector who had been a MiG pilot meeting the devout Ana at a Baptist church, wooing and marrying her. Juan Pablo was the one who had always pushed things -- pleading for marriage, wanting to have a child with her. She had been the reluctant one, partly because his life didn't seem very stable.
After his defection in 1992 he had hopped from one low-wage job to the next, jobs like working in a warehouse and pumping gas. He had also drifted into exile politics, forming a group of ex-Cuban military types and joining Brothers to the Rescue.
Basulto, who had attended Roque's wedding and his 40th birthday party, had helped him become a personal fitness trainer to wealthy Cubans at their lavish homes. Only in retrospect did Basulto wonder if Roque became envious of the wealth he saw around him -- and would most likely never have himself.
Only in retrospect did Ana see clues to the future in some other things, like Juan Pablo's confession that he was helping the FBI with some investigations. He'd told her that if he ever had to go somewhere suddenly and mysteriously, she wasn't to question him. ``This,'' she says now, ``served a dual purpose.''
But that night, there was no hint his ``boat transporting job'' had anything to do with the FBI. At 3 a.m., she heard him get up and flick on the bathroom light. She called out to him, he gave her a gentle goodbye kiss and left. That morning, when she got into her car to drive to work, she noticed the cell-phone charger was still there. Why hadn't he taken it? Several times during the day, she called his cell phone. There was no answer.
Jose Basulto, 55, was one of many in Miami upset by this development. A clandestine radio operator during the Bay of Pigs who went on to become a prosperous builder-engineer in Miami, he had devoted the last five years of his life to Brothers, which had rescued 4,300 Cuban rafters.
After Clinton started sending rafters back to Cuba, Basulto's focus had changed. He had called the flight over Havana to drop leaflets about human rights ``an act of civil disobedience'' to signal ``to the people of Cuba that civil disobedience is possible.''
With no rafters to search for, the Cessnas' weekly flights were now mostly to the Bahamas, delivering food, clothing and toys to the 200 Cuban refugees in a camp there.
Several weeks before, Basulto had announced the Brothers were supporting Concilio Cubano, and in a press conference, he had passed an envelope containing $2,000 in cash to a Concilio leader.
The alliance between Basulto and Concilio was making Washington nervous. Early Friday afternoon, the Cuban Affairs Office in the State Department contacted the FAA's Office of International Aviation and warned that ``because of crackdown against dissidents in Havana the [Brothers] might attempt a flight to demonstrate solidarity with dissidents.'' The State Department officer reported that Cuba was in a "rough mood" and was ``less likely to show restraint.''
At 2:40 p.m., the FAA in Washington transmitted this information via e-mail to the FAA's office in Miami. ``I've reiterated,'' stated a Washington official, ``that the FAA cannot PREVENT flights such as this potential one, but that we'll alert our folks in case it happens and we'll document it (as best we can) for compliance/enforcement purposes.''
At 6 p.m., the military liaison officer for FAA Miami began arranging for radar centers around the country to pay special attention to the Brothers' planes: the Miami FAA center, the NORAD radar center at Tyndall Air Force Base in Panama City, Fla., and the U.S. Customs facility in California. Since the Brothers' planes flew at low altitudes, and thus were difficult to track, the liaison arranged for a blimp-sized radar balloon to be launched from Cudjoe Key.
Across town, at the Hyatt Regency in Coral Gables, 50 Concilio supporters gathered to discuss the repression going on in Cuba. They discussed possible action from Miami, but ultimately agreed not to upstage the dissidents in Cuba.
Basulto was at the Hyatt that evening, and he says he agreed with this reasoning completely. One thing was for sure, he says: He wasn't about to challenge Cuba when the government was focusing on a crackdown: ``I'd have to be crazy to do anything that day,'' he said.
Not that he was giving up his ideas of showering leaflets over Cuba. "Certainly, I had plans for other days,'' he insists, ``but not that day.'' He says the Brothers' regular Saturday flight to the Bahamas had been denied by the government in Nassau, apparently because a delegation from Cuba was scheduled to visit the refugee camp and the Bahamians didn't want a confrontation.
Searching for something to do, Basulto suggested to a group at the Hyatt that they look for rafters on Saturday. Though it had been months since the Brothers had spotted a rafter in the Straits, Basulto thought the renewed repression might cause a new dash into the water. If they found a rafter on this historic day, they would not only be saving a life, but also scoring a publicity coup against Castro.
At the Hyatt, Basulto discussed his idea with Brothers' supporters Sylvia and Andres Iriondo, prosperous 50-something Cubans who lived in an ocean-front condominium on Key Biscayne and were activists in anti-Castro protests. Basulto talked also to Armando Alejandre Jr., 45, a towering six-foot-seven Metro-Dade employee known for his intense, often quixotic one-man protests: pounding a sledgehammer on the glass doors of the San Carlos Institute in Key West when an allegedly pro-Castro group took it over; breaking a leg jumping a fence at the Cuban Interest Section in Washington. Alejandre's wife of 20 years, Marlene, had become accustomed to seeing a taxi arrive at their house and Armando suddenly bursting to the door with a suitcase, shouting that he was off on another lonely protest. ``I'm going to Cartagena,'' he told her in one such revelation when he decided to protest a Castro visit.
That evening at the Hyatt, Basulto, Alejandre and the Iriondos agreed to meet early the next morning at the Brothers' hangar at Opa-locka Airport. In Washington, that same evening, during the intermission of a performance of the Ballet Folklorico, Chris Marquis of The Herald's Washington Bureau bumped into Rick Nuccio, the White House's expert on Cuban affairs. Nuccio said he had an awful feeling that the Brothers to the Rescue were headed for a clash with Cuban authorities the next day. He gave no explanation.
Costa's buddy, Mario de la Peľa, a 24-year-old pilot who wanted to go to work for an airline, was thinking about a $30 expense check from the Brothers when he left his parent's house. He needed to check with someone, he told his mother, to make sure it was OK to cash it.
A few miles away, in his house near Sunset Drive, Armando Alejandre dashed out the door, ``happy as a little kid,'' recalled his wife. ``I screamed at him to give me a kiss, but he was already gone.''
In his small efficiency apartment in East Hialeah, Pablo Morales read his daily devotional. Then he rushed through his route as a salesman of Cuban food products, dropping by supermarkets to see if they needed supplies. A rafter who fled Cuba in 1992, he was convinced being spotted by a Brothers' Cessna had saved his life, and he had become a volunteer observer, flying whenever the Brothers needed him.
About 9 a.m., the group gathered at the Opa-locka Airport. Costa filed a flight plan with the FAA, for a route going east to the Bahamas, then south to the waters in the Florida Straits, back west in a search pattern, then north to Opa-locka. He said the planes would take off about 10:15 a.m.
As had become its custom with Brothers' flights, the FAA forwarded the flight plan to Havana. This was supposed to reduce the risk of an accidental confrontation.
Basulto delayed the takeoff when he learned that a mechanic who sometimes worked on Brothers' planeshad been detained in Cuba the previous evening when a plane he was flying back from Cancun lost an engine and was forced to land on the island. The man had supposedly been interrogated for hours by Cuban agents and hadn't gotten back to Miami until 3 a.m. Basulto and Arnaldo Iglesias, the Brothers' secretary, waited in the hangar until 11 a.m. so they could talk to the mechanic: What were the Cubans up to? After talking to him, they decided the detention had been strictly routine.
Their next pressing concern: Should they have lunch before they took off? Costa wanted to get going immediately, so he'd have time to get to the beach, but most opted for eating. Costa and de la Peľa went to get hamburgers and fries for all. A revised flight plan was filed and forwarded to Havana.
In West Dade, Ana Roque answered the phone. A man she didn't know wanted to speak to Juan Pablo. She hedged, then demanded to know who he was. He said he was an agent from the FBI. Ana described her husband's ``mysterious disappearance'' and demanded to know what the FBI knew about it. The FBI man muttered a vague denial and quickly hung up.
No one at the FAA or in the military warned Basulto that MiGs were dashing through the air, and that Cuban radar watchers were keenly interested in finding three small planes. No one told Basulto that a Washington official was losing sleep or that the nation's radar installations were studying the Florida Straits, waiting for something to happen.
``Nobody warned us of anything,'' Basulto says. ``If I had known what was going on that day, I never would have flown.''
Is that true, or only a convenient second-guess? Some Washington officials believe Basulto would have flown in any case, that he was not the kind of person who would back down in the face of danger. But Basulto wasn't the only person flying that day. There were two other planes, and seven other people about to take off.
Miriam de la Peľa, Mario's mother, was stunned when a journalist later told her what had happened behind the scenes that day. She has a hard time reconciling the image of her 24-year-son happily leaving for a day of flying while a Washington official was so worried he was losing sleep: ``I'm sure Mario would have wanted to know.''
Jeane Kirkpatrick, the former diplomat, puts it this way: ``Non- notification is absolutely inexplicable.'' A U.S. official suggests an explanation: The MiGs were spotted not by the FAA, but by a radar operator at a far-off air base who probably had no idea how to contact the Brothers, or even authorization to do so. And the military probably didn't know that Havana Center had inquired of the FAA about slow-moving planes. ``There is this `unitary actor theory' that the United States is one person,'' says this official, ``kind of like someone playing a Nintendo game, sitting in front of this one radar screen and controlling everything that happens, and of course that's not true.''
An FAA spokesman says his agency won't comment on the matter because it is still embroiled in litigation over Basulto's pilot license. ``But the basic mission of the FAA is to ensure the safety of aircraft and passengers in U.S. airspace,'' he said. ``What happens outside of that airspace is a secondary consideration.''
Basulto says the FAA used to care about Brothers' safety -- a lot. Back in July 1991, shortly after the Brothers began flying, Mary Ann Zduncyzk, then an FAA flight service supervisor at Tamiami Airport, recalls getting an ominous Teletype from the Cuban air force threatening ``severe punishment'' to the Brothers' planes, which were looking for rafters in international waters. Zduncyzk says she called the Coast Guard, FAA Atlanta and the Pentagon trying to find a way to pass the message along to the Brothers' planes: ``We felt compelled to warn them.'' Finally, she reached Basulto's wife at home, and the message was passed along via radio.
A Brothers' pilot, Alberto Sanchez, recalls getting a warning that same 1991 day as he was circling a raft carrying seven people in international waters. Though MiGs were zooming around him, he decided to stay near the raft. The nearest U.S. Coast Guard ship was several hours way, and if he left the raft, it would be hard to re- locate. ``Seven lives were in my hands.''
Some minutes later, as he circled above the raft, Sanchez heard a strange voice on his radio, calling his plane number, ``November 3033 Lima, this is Wove 1.'' Astounded, Sanchez asked who Wove 1 was. The answer came back: One of a pair of U.S. fighter jets flying thousands of feet above him, giving him cover. Sanchez says they were on the scene so fast that they must have taken off well before Basulto was informed about the MiGs. ``That was a signal that the U.S. was going to protect U.S. citizens in U.S. planes in international waters,'' Sanchez says. The MiGs vanished; the rafters were saved.
He says he told the group there might be some danger. Andres Iriondo turned to his wife and suggested that perhaps they should fly in separate planes. Sylvia said no. She was struggling to overcome a fear of flying in small planes, and she wanted her husband by her side: They would both go with Basulto.
Basulto: ``We were all in agreement, to do the humanitarian work there, and those young men were perfectly informed about this mission, at least what I knew. Our mission was dangerous, and I told them that.'' The problem, he says, was that he didn't know how dangerous.
At 1:11 p.m., the three Cessna 337s took off from Opa-locka Airport. Sylvia, sitting beside her husband in the back seat of Basulto's and Iglesias' plane, remembers looking over at Mario and Armando, flying another Cessna beside them. They all waved happily at each other.
At 2:39 p.m., according to the report of the International Civic Aviation Organization (ICAO), Cuban radar detected the Brothers' planes heading south and ordered the two MiGs at San Antonio de los Baľos Air Force Base onto the runway with engines running. At 2:55 p.m., the MiGs took off. At that moment, according to U.S. radar, Basulto's plane was far from Cuban territorial space -- 50 nautical miles north of the 12-mile limit -- and the other two Cessnas were even farther away.
At 2:57 p.m., Basulto was approaching the 24th parallel -- an imaginary dividing line in the Florida Straits that marks the boundary of the airspace controlled by Miami FAA from the airspace controlled by Havana Center. Basulto called Havana and announced that in five minutes he would be crossing the 24th parallel. He passed along his transponder code and said: ``Brothers to the Rescue and myself, president of the organization, Jose Basulto, send you warm greetings.''
An anonymous voice at Havana Center responded: ``Roger, sir, we inform you that the area north of Havana is activated. You are taking a risk by flying south of 24.''
Basulto says he had heard this warning many times before. But this was still almost 40 miles north of Cuban airspace, and he had a legal right to fly there. He answered quickly: ``We know that we are in danger each time that we fly into the area south of 24, but we are ready to do so as free Cubans.''
At this moment, according to U.S. radar, the MiGs were already racing around the skies at 400 miles an hour, searching for Cessnas, which may have been too low for Cuba's radar to pinpoint reliably.
At 3:01 p.m., Basulto's plane crossed the 24th parallel, and several minutes later, the other two planes followed.
At 3:11 p.m., Cuban radar operators directed the MiGs to a spot about 20 miles north of Havana, eight miles outside of Cuban airspace.
``We're going to work against the target,'' the ground commander stated. For the next six minutes, the MiG pilots searched frantically for the Cessnas.
In California, Jeff Houlihan could see exactly where the Cessnas were. And the MiGs that were hunting them. He could scarcely believe it. In the two years he had been looking for drug smugglers in the Florida Straits, he had never seen MiGs flying, and he knew that, because of the scarcity of fuel in Cuba's desperate economy, this was more than a casual training mission.
``To see two up at the same time, to see them coming directly at the [Brothers] aircraft, and by that, northbound toward the U.S., concerned me.''
At 3:16 p.m., Houlihan made his frantic call to Tyndall AFB. The voice on the other end of the line told him that they were seeing exactly what he was seeing.
In fact, two F-15 fighter jets at the Homestead Air Reserve Base were ordered by NORAD to start their engines. Within a couple of minutes, they were at the end of the runway, ready to take off. They never did. Instead, they were taken "off battle stations," NORAD says, due to a misunderstanding of orders.
The planes would not have flown in any case, according to an official NORAD response, because the situation never met "scramble criteria," which is classified.
As Houlihan talked to Tyndall, a MiG-29 pilot finally spotted a Cessna. According to U.S. government transcripts of cockpit-to- ground conversations, the MiG pilot said excitedly: ``The target is in sight.'' At this point, Basulto was three miles north of Cuban airspace, and the others were behind him. Costa was telling Basulto about a large cruise ship he saw below them. Basulto said he'd spotted it.
"OK, roger," Costa replied. They were his last words to the outside world.
A minute later, Mario de la Peľa radioed Basulto with his coordinates: ``Do you want me to wait for you here?''
``Sure, why not?'' replied Basulto.
Costa and de la Peľa started flying a lazy circle to the east and north, as Basulto's plane kept heading south.
Some Washington skeptics believe that this exchange meant that Basulto was going to try some escapade in Cuban air territory while the other two planes waited outside Cuban airspace. Basulto denies this. He says that because he was going to do the southernmost leg, to form a parallel search pattern heading east, the other planes had to wait, so that they would all turn east at the same time.
Was it possible that Basulto was planning to drop leaflets again from miles offshore? The wind that day was only a gentle norther, not enough to float pamphlets for miles, and Basulto would have had to have been at 7,000 feet or higher to make such a drop. Instead, he was at only 1,000 feet.
Basulto says -- and a tape recording made during the flight backs him up -- that at this moment, he had his video camera out and was shooting first the cruise ship, which was Majesty of the Seas, and then the Havana skyline, fuzzy in the distance. Iglesias, a nonpilot, had his hands on the controls. ``Fantastic!'' mutters Sylvia, catching her first glimpse of the Havana skyline in more than 30 years.
Iglesias to Basulto: ``Do you want a close-up?''
Basulto: ``Go ahead.''
As Basulto's plane kept heading south, Cuba ground control asked the MiG pilot to describe the colors of the small plane he had spotted. ``It is blue and white,'' reported the MiG pilot. The Brothers' colors. At that moment, Basulto's plane was two nautical miles outside of Cuban territorial airspace, and the others were considerably farther outside. There is no indication in the tape recordings, either those made by the United States or those made by Cuba, that the pilots or ground control were concerned whether the Cessnas had crossed the Cuban territorial limit.
A minute later, Basulto instructed Iglesias: ``Turn to the east.'' At this point, the plane had drifted 1.5 nautical miles within Cuban airspace. Basulto's plane was equipped with a sophisticated global positioning system that could accurately reflect his position within 300 feet. Either Basulto wasn't paying attention, or he intended to tweak the Cuban defense system just a little. In either case, Basulto's infringement of Cuban airspace did not occur until after the MiGs had already begun their attack run.
At 3:20:22, a MiG pilot screamed to ground control: ``I have it in lock on. I have it in lock on. Give us authorization. . . . It is a Cessna 337. That one. Give us authorization, damn it.''
At that moment, unaware of the drama unfolding above him, Basulto spoke again to Havana Center: ``Warm greetings. We report to you from 12 miles from Havana and proceed on our search and rescue course to the east. It's a beautiful day today and Havana looks just fine from up here. Cordial greetings to you and to all the people of Cuba from Brothers to the Rescue.''
Seconds later, Basulto spotted a dark streak zooming across the sky. ``They threw a MiG at us!'' he said with a frightened laugh. ``Wow, they're going to shoot at us!''
At nearly the same instant, Cuban ground control instructed the MiG: ``Fire. . . . Authorized to destroy.''
From two miles above and behind the Cessna carrying Carlos Costa and Pablo Morales, the MiG-29 fired a 10-foot-long R-73 missile with an infra-red homing device. Costa was at least nine nautical miles north of Cuban territory, heading north. Blindsided by a streaking missile, he would not have had even a second's warning.
MiG-29 pilot: ``We hit him. Cojones. We hit him. . . . This one won't mess around anymore.''
Below him, the mate on the fishing vessel Tri-Liner called to his captain, Tim Reilly, who awoke from a sound sleep and rushed on deck to see a piece of metal the size of a car splashing into the water.
Basulto saw what he thought was a flare being used by the MiGs to mark his position. Sylvia pulled a rosary from her purse and clutched it, thinking of her four children. Basulto and Iglesias were saying nothing, but their paled, drained faces were filled with fear.
De la Peľa had also spotted the MiG: ``Seagull One, there's a MiG in the air. Bogey in the air. Where are you?''
Basulto: ``The bogeys are north of us at this time.''
Both de la Peľa and Basulto tried to radio Costa. There was no answer.
Basulto says he was in a ``state of denial.'' He couldn't imagine that the Cubans had shot down a plane. In the cockpits, everyone's minds were racing wildly, but no one speculated out loud, and for the next several minutes, there were long stretches of silence, punctuated by calls to Costa.
As Basulto's plane kept heading eastward, de la Peľa was continuing his circle to the north. Meanwhile, the MiG announced to base: ``We are climbing and returning home.''
At this moment, Cuba had already sent a clear message to the world. But apparently there was more to the message; Cuban ground control ordered the MiG to remain in the air. Two minutes later, the MiG-29 pilot spotted a second Cessna.
``Follow it,'' ground control ordered. ``Don't lose the other small aircraft.''
``Is the other authorized?'' asked the MiG pilot.
``Authorized to destroy.''
Still in shock, de la Peľa radioed Basulto again. "I did not see a MiG. I saw smoke, and a flare.'' Those were the last words he uttered. At 3:28, seven minutes after the first shoot-down, the MiG fired another R-73 rocket. At that moment, de la Peľa was at least 10 nautical miles outside of Cuban airspace, heading north over international waters.
On the Tri-Liner fishing vessel, Tim Reilly looked up just in time to see a rocket burst from a streaking MiG. It struck the tiny Cessna, and a flash of fire lit the sky. Metal rained down.
``The other is destroyed,'' gloated the MiG pilot. ``Fatherland or death, sh - -, the other is down also.''
Again, Basulto saw smoke. ``Seagull Mike?'' There was no response. Desperately, Basulto tried several more times. In the cockpit there was no speculation about what happened, only a stunned silence.
Iglesias says he and Basulto didn't want to panic their shocked observers in the back seat. Basulto motioned his hand downward to Iglesias so those in the back seat couldn't see, to indicate he was convinced both of the other two planes had been blown up.
Finally, Basulto said quietly, ``Let's go home.''
Meanwhile, the first set of MiGs was returning to base, and a second set took off in pursuit of Basulto, who muttered, "We are next." He was heading north, desperately trying to hide in scattered clouds.
``It's like there's an intruder in your house when you're in bed, and so you pull the sheet over your head so you won't see him.''
As he approached Key West, he radioed Miami Center and reported the two planes missing. In the back seat, Andres Iriondo thought to himself that if they were in contact with Miami, they must be safe. But he was wrong. The second set of MiGs was still scouring the skies for them. As Basulto neared Key West, U.S. and Cuban transcripts show, both MiG pilots reported seeing a light-blue-and-white Cessna 337.
The MiGs chased what they thought was Basulto's plane for some minutes, then lost it. At 3:51 p.m., Havana ground control ordered the fighters to return to base.
At 5:09 p.m., Basulto landed and was ordered to the U.S. Customs office, where he and his passengers endured hours of questioning, while distraught relatives waited uncertainly in the hangar. It was not until the following afternoon, when the relatives heard first-hand reports from the Coast Guard and eyewitnesses on the cruiseliner, Majesty of the Seas, that they realized there was no hope.
On Monday, hope was revived in a brief flash when American radio and television went on the air with a bulletin: A Brothers' survivor was alive in Cuba. The ``survivor'' turned out to be Juan Pablo Roque. His story had been published that morning in the official Cuban newspaper, Granma. That night, he went on Cuban television.
Roque described himself as a Brother who decided to return to his homeland to reveal to the world "the true nature of Brothers to the Rescue."
He said the Brothers had been involved in paramilitary training, with plans to bomb Cuban electric facilities and assassinate Castro and other leaders. He claimed he had sometimes flown ``military versions'' of Cessna 337s, and that he had reported all these illegal exploits to the FBI, but that the federal agency refused to act.
That's why, the Cuban government reported in Granma, it had had no choice but to shoot down the militaristic Cessnas when they ventured near the Cuban coast -- well within the country's 12-mile limit.
The extensive radar tracking in the U.S. quickly poked a hole in the Cuban contention that all this occurred in Cuban airspace. And nobody north of Havana gave any credibility to Roque's talk of armed Cessnas. But the oddness and timing of his return to Cuba raised obvious questions.
Was Roque a spy all along? His ex-wife, Ana Martinez, thinks yes. She can't imagine the alternative: That he might genuinely have professed love for her, then decided to abandon her for Cuba. Basulto thinks no: He thinks the ex-military man couldn't adapt to life in the United States, was frustrated by the opulence he saw that he couldn't get for himself and decided to renew his allegiance to his homeland.
Whatever Roque's motivation, his bizarre role in the affair caused Basulto to begin thinking of conspiracies. He was astounded by the idea that Roque was talking to the Communists while informing on the Brothers for the FBI -- and getting $7,000 for his efforts, according to the later admission of a chagrined FBI.
During a meeting with Paul R. Philip, head of the Dade FBI office, Basulto complained that FBI agents were handling Brothers to the Rescue ``the same way they treated Martin Luther King'' -- by spying.
Since Roque was working for both Cuba and the FBI, Basulto conjectured that both organizations had reasons to want to injure the Brothers; maybe they had conspired together to lure him into the trap south of the 24th parallel.
``I think the Cubans got fed up with us, and they said, `You do something or we'll do something,' '' says Basulto. ``And I think the response was, `Well, they're bothering us, too.' We'd been the thorn in a lot of people's sides, so they wanted us gone.''
An FBI spokesman said the agency had nothing further to say about Roque: ``Everything we're doing or not doing [about Roque] is confidential.''
Chief among Basulto's suspicions -- which he acknowledges may sound bizarre -- is that the United States made a conscious decision to not prevent the shootdowns. Though officials call the allegation ``outrageous,'' there is no dispute American radar was seeing the MiGs more than 20 minutes before the shootings. Even so, no attempt was made to notify the Cessnas in the air.
The Department of Defense says its NORAD center at Tyndall had no ability to call the planes directly, but acknowledges Tyndall could have notified FAA Miami. Basulto says it would have taken only a minute for the FAA to relay the message to the Cessnas via its tower in the Keys or to call the Brothers' hangar in Opa-locka, which could have instantly radioed Basulto.
NORAD says it didn't notify the FAA because the simple existence of MiGs in the air was not interpreted as an immediate danger. Six to 10 times previously, the department claimed in a faxed response to Tropic, MiG planes had intercepted the Brothers in the Straits without incident and ``NORAD had no knowledge of Cuban hostile intent.'' NORAD also stated that ``Air Force fighters have never scrambled in response to [Brothers] activity.''
Basulto calls these responses ``hogwash.'' He acknowledges that Brothers have seen MiGs on a number of occasions, but in only one case did a MiG come aggressively close to a Brothers' plane.
He produced a U.S. Coast Guard report from the July 21, 1991, incident to show that U.S. fighters have indeed scrambled to support a Brothers' plane. He points to the court testimony of Houlihan, the Customs radar man who had watched the area for two years, to show that, because of Cuba's scarcity of fuel, MiG activity was extremely rare. And he says that given the State Department's assessment that Cuba was in a ``rough mood'' and the decision to heighten radar coverage of the area, NORAD was fully aware of ``hostile intent.''
On the other hand, even if NORAD had scrambled American jets to the Brothers' rescue at the first sign of MiGs in the air, they may not have gotten there in time. Cuban fighters took off 26 minutes before the shootdown, and it would have taken American fighters 20 to 30 minutes to get from Homestead to the Florida Straits.
Basulto's main focus is not on the minutes before the first shootdown, but the additional 40 minutes that followed, during which a second plane was shot down, and his plane was chased by a second pair of MiGs. Basulto, who believes the MiGs followed him almost all the way to Key West without any response from the Air Force, has hammered on this point so hard that Rep. Dan Burton, R-Ind., has persuaded the Inspector General's Office of the Department of Defense to open an investigation.
The U.S. radar reports released to the public show the MiGs remained well below the 24th parallel, 15 to 23 miles from the Cuban coast. But Basulto points out an inconsistency: The two MiG pilots who were looking for his plane both reported seeing a blue-and-white Cessna 337. At the time they reported this sighting, the official U.S. radar report shows Basulto's plane 20 to 30 miles from Key West, and gives the MiGs' location as 50 miles to the southeast of the Cessna. If they had really been 50 miles away, the MiG pilots would not have been able to see Basulto's Cessna. Basulto believes they were much closer, and an obvious threat to the U.S. mainland.
``I think the Department of Defense needs to explain this. When I talked to the Inspector General's staff, they said, well, maybe it was a boat, or a cloud [the MiG pilots saw]. But they said they were seeing a Cessna 337.''
Basulto wonders if the radar charts were doctored to show the MiGs farther away, below the 24th parallel, to justify the Homestead fighters' not scrambling.
In a prepared statement made at Tropic's request, NORAD remains adamant that the radar tracks are correct: ``We concluded beyond doubt that the statements made by the MiG pilots were definitely not a visual identification of the remaining [Brothers] aircraft.''
One Washington source calls Basulto's conspiracy theories ``complete, absolute bull- - -. We kept telling him it was dangerous to fly there. He flew there -- and now he's trying to find someone to blame.''
Even some relatives of the victims are not happy that Basulto is focusing so much attention on his conspiracy theory.
Mirta Mendez, sister of the dead pilot, Carlos Costa, says she, too, has many questions about what the United States did or didn't do. But the main point, she says, is that the United Nations found Cuba's shooting down the planes an egregiously illegal act: "We don't want attention diverted from the fact that Castro ordered these unarmed civilian planes shot down in international airspace."
Meanwhile, in Cuba, little has been heard from Juan Pablo Roque. Last summer, Diario las Americas ran a photo of him standing in line to purchase goods at a dollar store in Havana. Ana says she heard from his relatives that when his father became seriously ill, Juan Pablo "used whatever influence he had to get him into one of the best hospitals in Havana." In late January, however, the father died.
Brothers to the Rescue survives, but just barely. After elaborate appeals costing the Brothers close to $100,000, Basulto's license has been finally revoked. Though each of the Brothers' $90,000 planes was insured, the insurance company has refused to pay, citing an ``act of war'' provision.
Still, for the anniversary, Monday, Feb. 24, Basulto is planning a ``flotilla of planes'' that would fly together to the spot where the two planes were shot down and drop flowers.
This time, Basulto says, he's getting a very different response from the U.S. government: ``The Coast Guard is calling me. The FAA is being very cooperative. Our intention is to make this a very public, a very open thing. We're not expecting any problems.''