Limbo of the Lost. The Twilight Zone. Hoodoo Sea. The Devil's Triangle. The vast three-sided segment of the Atlantic Ocean bordered by Bermuda, Puerto Rico and Fort Lauderdale, Florida, did not receive its most famous nickname until 1964, but reports of bizarre happenings there, or nearby, have been recorded for centuries. In fact, many claim that Christopher Columbus bore witness to the Bermuda Triangle's weirdness.
As the Nina, the Pinta and the Santa Maria sailed through the area in 1492, it is reported that Columbus's compass went haywire and that he and his crew saw weird lights in the sky, but these events have mundane explanations. From the account in Columbus's journal, it is thought that his compass's slight inaccuracy stemmed from nothing more than the discrepancy between true north and magnetic north. As for the lights, Columbus wrote of seeing "a great flame of fire" that crashed into the ocean -- probably a meteor. He saw lights in the sky again on October 11, which, of course, was the day before his famous landing. The lights, brief flashes near the horizon, were spotted in the area where dry land turned out to be.
Another historical event retroactively attributed to the Bermuda Triangle is the discovery of the Mary Celeste. The vessel was found abandoned on the high seas in 1892, about 400 miles off its intended course from New York to Genoa. There was no sign of its crew of ten or what had happened to them. Since the lifeboat was also missing, it is quite possible that they abandoned the Mary Celeste during a storm that they wrongly guessed the ship could not weather. But what makes it even harder to call this a Bermuda Triangle mystery is that it the ship was nowhere near the Triangle -- it was found off the coast of Portugal.
The Bermuda Triangle legend really began in earnest on December 5, 1945, with the famed disappearance of Flight 19. Five Navy Avenger bombers mysteriously vanished while on a routine training mission, as did a rescue plane sent to search for them -- six aircraft and 27 men, gone without a trace. Or so the story goes.
When all the facts are laid out, the tale of Flight 19 becomes far less puzzling. All of the crewmen of the five Avengers were inexperienced trainees, with the exception of their patrol leader, Lt. Charles Taylor. Taylor was perhaps not at the height of his abilities that day, as some reports indicate that he had a hangover and failed in his attempts to pass off this flight duty to someone else.
With the four rookie pilots entirely dependent on his guidance, Taylor found that his compass malfunctioned soon into the flight. Taylor chose to continue the run on dead reckoning, navigating by sighting landmarks below. Being familiar with the islands of the Florida Keys where he lived, Taylor had reason to feel confident in flying by sight. But visibility became poor due to a brewing storm, and he quickly became disoriented.
Flight 19 was still in radio contact with the Fort Lauderdale air base, although the weather and a bad receiver in one of the Avengers made communication very spotty. They may have been guided safely home if Taylor had switched to an emergency frequency with less radio traffic, but he refused for fear they would be unable to reestablish contact under these conditions.
Taylor ended up thinking they were over the Gulf of Mexico, and ordered the patrol east in search of land. But in reality, they had been heading up the Atlantic coastline, and Taylor was mistakenly leading his hapless trainees much further out to sea. Radio recordings indicate that some of them suggested to Taylor that Florida was actually to the west.
A search party was dispatched, which included the Martin Mariner that many claim disappeared into the Bermuda Triangle along with Flight 19. While it is true that it never returned, the Mariner did not vanish; it blew up 23 seconds after takeoff, in an explosion that was witnessed by several at the base. This was unfortunately not an uncommon occurrence, because Mariners were known for their faulty gas tanks.
No known wreckage from Flight 19 has ever been recovered. One reasonable explanation is that Taylor led the planes so far into the Atlantic that they were past the continental shelf. There the ocean abruptly drops from a few hundred feet deep to several thousand feet deep. Planes and ships that sink to such depths are seldom seen again. The deepest point in the Atlantic Ocean, the 30,100-foot-deep Puerto Rico Trench, lies within the Bermuda Triangle.
Combining the circumstances of the failing compass, the difficulty of radio transmissions, and the absence of wreckage, tales of mysterious intervention befalling Flight 19 began to take form. Theories involving strange magnetic fields, time warps, Atlantis, and alien abduction began to appear. Even an official Navy report intimated that the Avengers had disappeared "as if they had flown to Mars."
About 200 prior and subsequent incidents have been attributed to the inherent strangeness of the area, which was forever christened the Bermuda Triangle by writer V. Gaddis in a 1964 issue of Argosy, a fiction magazine. Public interest in the "phenomenon" was whipped into a frenzy by Charles Berlitz's 1974 bestseller The Bermuda Triangle, a sensationalized and thoroughly inaccurate account that shunned the facts in favor of mysterious excitement.
There are two major obstacles to taking the Bermuda Triangle legend seriously. The first is that most of the associated mishaps can be explained by rational means. The second is that most of the associated mishaps did not occur within the Bermuda Triangle. If you plot all of the alleged instances of the area's malevolent influence on a map, you find that only a handful have actually happened within the Triangle's borders. Sea disasters as distant as Portugal, Ireland and the Pacific and Indian Oceans have been blamed on the Bermuda Triangle. We might then just as well rename it as "The Worldwide Curse of All Seas." Some have turned this fact on its head by proposing this as evidence that the Devil's Triangle is expanding in scope.
Others may respond that it is evidence that accidents will happen -- no matter where exactly on the land, on the sea or in the air they take place.