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Cub reporter for L.A. Times gets Page One break with PSA crash story

He knew the streets around Morley Field

As we drove onto the 163 and took to the Richmond Street exit to Upas, thick black smoke was spreading throughout the sky.
As we drove onto the 163 and took to the Richmond Street exit to Upas, thick black smoke was spreading throughout the sky.

Even after the passage of 44 years, the tiniest of details still remains fresh when I relive the hot awful Monday of September 25, 1978 in San Diego. At fifty seconds past 9 am, above El Cajon Boulevard at 38th Street, the right wing of a Pacific Southwest Airlines jet descending in a turn toward Lindbergh Field was gashed from below by a single-engine Cessna that the 727 pilot had lost sight of. Killed were the two Cessna pilots, all 135 PSA passengers and crew, and seven people on the ground where the jet plunged into houses along Dwight Street between Nile and Boundary streets in North Park.

I was a young reporter fewer than six months into a journalism career, working for the San Diego County edition of the Los Angeles Times. The crash of flight 182, the deadliest ever in U.S aviation at the time and still the worst in San Diego history, would serendipitously result in my first front-page byline. A few weeks ago, while reshuffling boxes in the garage, I came across the notebook I used that morning to cover the apocalyptic scene. And all the memories surfaced again.

The County’s official photographer Hans Wendt heard a pop skywards, looked up to see the 727 hurtling out-of-control to the ground, and instinctively reacted, snapping a color photo of the stricken jet with its right wing aflame. It became the iconic visual of the accident.

Dispatch

On the morning of the 25th, I had arrived early to the eighth-floor newsroom, in the Central Federal Tower at 3rd and Broadway, planning to call the County’s Air Pollution Control District about unhealthy smog that was predicted to envelop the city on a hot Santa Ana day, with temperatures rising to record triple digits. It turned out that the APCD had scheduled an 8:30 am demonstration of experimental vapor-recovery gas pump handles at the Go-Lo station in North Park on University Avenue at 32nd Street — by happenstance, only three blocks north from where PSA would plummet.

But I missed notice of the event, having worked the previous Friday in San Onofre on a story about Amtrak engineers injured by rock-throwing inebriates targeting nighttime trains along the beachside track. (The County’s official photographer Hans Wendt was at the Go-Lo when he heard a pop skywards, looked up to see the 727 hurtling out-of-control to the ground, and instinctively reacted, snapping a color photo of the stricken jet with its right wing aflame. It became the iconic visual of the accident.)

So I was on the phone to Dick Smith, APCD assistant director, both to develop the smog story and include information about the new pump handles I had missed acquiring by not being at the Go-Lo. I absentmindedly looked out the window adjoining my pod to the northeast and saw angry black smoke billowing over the Broadway skyline. Simultaneously, senior reporter Jack Jones, who was manning the city desk until the usual arrival of editors around 10 am, was motioning frantically for me to get off the line. He looked stricken. He had been monitoring the police-fire radio frequencies when he heard this chilling transmission:

“San Diego dispatch, Engine 14” — from John Allen, one of the Station 14 crew members from 32nd Street and Lincoln Avenue who were on their daily run at Morley Field.

“Engine 14,” Fire Dispatch replied.

“An airliner has crashed in the vicinity of Interstate 805 and University and we are responding from Morley Field,” Allen panted, his voice trembling.

Three seconds of silence. Then Dispatch queried, “Engine 14, are you responding to a vehicle fire?”

“Negative, San Diego, this is an airliner crash at approximately 805 and University. We are responding.”

I mumbled a quick, “Dick, I gotta go” into the phone, and bolted to the city desk, where Jack shouted that a passenger jet had crashed, and pleaded with me to hustle over to the 805 and University with photographer Bob Lachman, who had caught the same scanner traffic while working in the photo lab and was already at the office door, loaded down with his camera bag, ready to go. The elevator ride down eight floors to the lobby and then two floors to P2 in a separate lift seemed, at the time, the longest three minutes of my career.

As Lachman gunned his car out of the skyscraper garage, its shoebox-sized radiotelephone buzzed with information from reporter Nancy Ray, who had arrived at the office and was helping Jack monitor emergency radio traffic. She told us the plane was a Western Airlines 727 (such is the fog of early news reports) and that police and California Highway Patrol were already setting up roadblocks as dozens of fire engines and rescue vehicles swarmed the area. As we drove onto the 163 and took to the Richmond Street exit to Upas, thick black smoke was spreading throughout the sky.

Arrival on Scene

Having spent many days around Morley Field as a kid, I was able to direct Lachman along the side streets to the south of the crash site, taking Upas to Herman to Thorn to Felton to Myrtle — correctly assuming that those little-trafficked thoroughfares would be the last to be blocked off. (Times reporter Nancy Skelton, having heard the news while still at home, got caught up later at one of the barricades that was keeping traffic from exiting the south 805 at University, and lost more than an hour in a contentious standoff with a CHP officer before a San Diego police official who had been called to the scene waved her through, anxious to forego an arrest and an additional headache, given the far more serious matters only a stone’s throw away.) When Lachman reached Myrtle and Boundary, a block south of the impact, I got out and urged him to get back to the office as soon as he had good shots and not worry about a rendezvous with me later.

I was wearing suit pants, a blue dress shirt and maroon tie, and I was already sweating through them with nervous anticipation as I ran up Boundary toward the epicenter, the heat made worse by a baking sun, and my nerves made worse by the acrid smell of metal, jet fuel, household goods, baggage items and, yes, flesh, all burning furiously together and foretelling a horrible story. It was 9:23 am. I recalled what Jack had imparted to me months earlier about reporting, after he had watched me having to revamp a story several times by adding needed details: “Make like a vacuum cleaner and suck up everything you can, and don’t worry about shaping it until later.” Fortuitously, I made a snap decision to get a phone number from every witness interviewed, which served me well, both at the time and a decade later in revisiting the scene for a story looking back into history. I just didn’t want to panic the way I saw a friend from the The San Diego Union do, running past me, away from the flaming wreckage, moaning how awful everything was. Don’t picture yourself on that plane, I admonished myself. (That would come after everything was over.)

I came across the notebook I used that morning to cover the apocalyptic scene. And all the memories surfaced again.

The first dozen pages of my spiral notebook reveal an initial hour or so of frenzied interviews and brief descriptions which, more than four decades later, I can still picture vividly. Flecks of blood and remnants of clothing along with large and small pieces of the plane, interior and exterior, were strewn haphazardly up and down the Boundary block. Two passenger seats sat perfectly upright in the middle of the street. I nearly tripped over parts of a shoe, then blanched at a discolored bare foot alongside the curb, next to a record album. Everywhere, residents, numbed by the cacophony of sirens and exploding debris, were trying to comprehend both what had happened and why they had been spared when others just two or three or four doors away had either been killed or had their homes torn apart, or both. Pham Thanh, a refugee from Vietnam only nine months in San Diego, described how the windows of his house had been blown out by the plane’s nearby impact, and how he had found a wall of flame as he opened the door and ran away from “everything that seemed to be red all at once.” I noticed that his hand had been cut, but his adrenaline was still so high that the pain hadn’t yet fully registered. He went off looking for an EMT or nurse as emergency vehicles became visible on the next block.

There were more blood-spattered house-steps and trembling witnesses as I reached the point near Dwight where the main part of the fuselage had disintegrated. The tail-mounted rear engine with its PSA logo, charred but still readable, rested on its side, half-destroyed amidst the burning rubble that moments earlier had been dwellings. Resident Allan Stageberg heard the sound of air whizzing past his house and then an explosion that violently shook the structure. He knew it was a jet when he opened his door and saw fire engulfing the aircraft and a row of houses burning across the street on the south side of Dwight. As he spoke to me, two firemen sat on a nearby curb receiving supplemental oxygen to counteract the foul air. “We get planes coming low over us all the time on their way to landing at the airport, so for me it was just a matter of time before something like this happened,” said Stageberg. (In the aftermath of the crash, air traffic control procedures were changed so that all planes now land under mandatory tower direction, with southbound craft required to make a wide 180-degree turn 10 miles to the east, beginning above La Mesa, and then line up for a long straight glide into the airport, rather than turning over Mission Valley on a tight approach into Lindbergh Field.)

I espied Rev. Patrick Grace of the Academy of Our Lady of Peace in University Heights, who had rushed over to try and help in any way possible. “I had heard there might be injured, so I’m here in case there is anything I can do,” he told me forlornly as he watched dozens of firefighters maneuvering to get the upper hand on the fires. “But now, there’s really nothing I can do except pray.” I noticed a second priest on the Nile side of the wreckage saying the last rites of the Catholic Church over a couple of blanket-covered bodies. I couldn’t get over to talk to him, but Rev. Grace thought he might be from nearby St. Augustine High School six blocks south, where later in the morning, the County Coroner would set up a temporary morgue in the school’s gymnasium (and where one of our youngest reporters would become physically ill by evening from watching body bags — that eventually totaled 143 — steadily arrive, filled by deputy coroners and enlisted Navy and Marine personnel pressed into service to comb the site for remains.)

The Front Page

By that juncture, I had written “10:04 a.m.” in my notebook. It had been a little more than an hour since the two planes had collided. (By then, the city desk was aware of the Cessna, and had dispatched two reporters to the North Park intersection of Polk and 32nd streets where it had crashed.) I looked around for colleagues, amid the mob of emergency workers and spectators, but I could spot only Lachman and a second Times photographer who had joined him. Later, the paper would charter a helicopter to get an overhead photo of the carnage.

It occurred to me that I should find a telephone and let the city desk know where I was and what I had so far. That task turned out to require more than a half hour: I spent much of the time looking for a working phone. Power had been turned off in the area because of damaged lines and fear of sparking, and telephone service was spotty, as phone cables were attached to the same electric utility poles. I knocked on a half-dozen doors along Boundary north of Dwight, where miraculously there had been no damage; the area plowed by the plane was mercifully limited to a single block, due to the steep angle at which it had fallen. When I finally found a residence with a functioning phone, the owner eyed me warily even after I flashed my newspaper identification and San Diego Police press pass. A ten-dollar bill sealed the deal — much to my irritation. I felt momentarily like a cliché reporter as pictured in an old ‘B’ movie. In any event, the man pointed me to an old-style phone, and I dialed into the office and was put through immediately to Jack, a consummate professional who now was assembling a crisp, clear main story from a myriad of sources that would be ready well before deadlines for the 2 pm Late Final edition distributed at major Los Angeles newsstands and for worldwide use on the Los Angeles Times-Washington Post joint newswire. Jack was terse and focused, and wanted quick bits of color, witness quotes and names, and any statistical information I had gleaned. I was able to help with the first two, but not the third.

Then my editor Dale Fetherling got on the line and said I absolutely needed to be back no later than 1 pm to start on a color story to run (potentially) alongside the main narrative by Jack in the next-day editions, given the deadlines being placed on him by top editors in Los Angeles. (I learned later that Dale had successfully pushed back against an L.A. editor who wanted to bigfoot the office and send a reporting crew from Los Angeles.) That gave me, at best, a little more than 90 additional minutes at the scene, not counting the time needed to get back downtown amid a chaotic traffic environment. It also added additional pressure, intended or not, to come up with an article compelling enough to pass successfully through a gauntlet of editors. I was no naïf about the rarity of a front-page byline in a profession that often measured success by how many you produced. A page-1 story required more than the average deadline product.

“Are there any bodies around your house?”

Hustling back south on Boundary, I noted that most of the fires were coming under control, and the smoke over the landscape had cleared sufficiently by now to bring into starker relief the violence that had shredded the neighborhood. Doing my best to shrug off the oppressive heat, I continued to record observations as I moved from house to house to talk with more people, while a helicopter hovered overhead with a bullhorn voice ordering all sightseers to leave an area of 24 square blocks immediately or risk arrest. It was 10:41 am.

PSA workers had arrived and were somberly roping off the aircraft wreckage. Perhaps they already knew that in addition to the seven working crew, there had been 18 other PSA employees aboard, San Diego being the company’s main base. On the porch of one house on Boundary, two collection workers gingerly removed a nose and upper lip with a moustache, all stuck to a piece of fiberglass, and placed the body part in a body bag. Firefighters, clad only in boots and shorts because of the heat, set up a ladder to climb the roof of another house where a body rested. As they brought it to the curb to be bagged, a normally stoic police officer cringed and turned away, his eyes tearing momentarily. One worker confessed that he tried not to think about what he was doing because so many bodies had been mangled. He put it delicately: “It’s an understatement to say that what we’re seeing doesn’t look nice at all.” Flies had begun to buzz around the baby blue blankets, held down with rocks, that tirage teams were using to cover body parts not yet placed into bags. The body bags already processed were piling up in the street, each marked with a manila tag specifying the remains inside. In another front yard, student homework papers for a second-grade class in the West Covina Unified School District were scattered randomly on the lawn, together with half of a passenger seat armrest. Three credit cards lay on a neighboring lawn.

A sailor from the destroyer escort USS Stein was fast-walking down Boundary, headed for a house on Felton where his grandmother lived, so I followed. The Navy had permitted emergency leave for anyone with a relative in the area, because no one could get through by telephone. The sailor, Steve Abernathy, spotted his frail, white-haired grandmother Catherine Lambert in front of her house and rushed to embrace her. She was still a little shaky, even though the only damage to her property was from a Timex watch that had rocketed forth from the jet’s impact and slammed against her living room window, creating a small crack. A full armrest ended up in her laundry handbasket in the backyard.

I looped back to Dwight after collecting more eyewitness accounts, and in the intense sunlight, caught the flash of a man wearing red overalls as he was walking toward Niles Street. Catching up with him, I learned that he was a deputy coroner, setting out to talk with an elderly woman outside a Niles house just north of the corner whose backyard appeared singed. She was in animated conversation with a neighbor, explaining how she felt so lucky to be alive as the plane had nose-dived, only 100 feet further south, into neighboring houses. “The Good Lord must have been watching over me even though on Saturday night it had been so hot, I had decided that I wouldn’t go to church on Sunday.” The woman, 79-year-old Gladys Bonatus, had lived in the house for 42 years, and averred that in all that time, she had never liked the airplanes overhead, and probably would like them even less now. The deputy coroner stepped forth and gently interrupted the conversation, his manner almost apologetic. “Ma’am, I’m the coroner. I hate to put it this way, but are there any bodies around your house?” She didn’t say anything, but simply pointed to the backyard, and the deputy motioned to two Navy men trailing him to bring a couple of body bags.

Turning back to her neighbor and acknowledging my presence, Bonatus felt compelled to explain why she was clutching a small brown paper sack. It contained some money and her pocketbook, which she had earlier grabbed after someone had run up the street shouting for everyone to evacuate their homes. “I’m not a miser, but you need money to live.” Her eyes welled up as she described the irrepressible four-year-old boy who lived on the corner with his mother and whose home had been flattened. Both were presumed dead. She spoke haltingly of how he used to come over to her house and stare at the front porch doorbell button because it had a light inside it. He always was asking why a doorbell would need a lighted button, she sobbed.

I thanked her for her time and expressed my relief that she had come through the ordeal without being hurt — though I could tell from the conversation that the crash was going to be on her mind for a long time afterwards. Her sense of things at once arbitrary and spiritual led me to jot down a note about the capriciousness of the entire scene: a multiplex nicknamed Dossie’s with senior citizens largely untouched but the adjacent houses destroyed; residents who knew nothing was amiss until the loud boom of the explosion, while others, like wheelchair-bound Adlyne Ethelridge, saw a body tumble out from the plane after it passed over her backyard no more than 10 feet away, just prior to implosion. There could be no logical explanation for all of this. But my brief foray into philosophical thought ended abruptly when an officer yelled at me to move away from a burnt house with a leg jutting out from a side wall. Walking back over to Boundary, I passed two U.S. postal inspectors who were beginning their required search for any mail salvageable from the crash, and to carry out a neighborhood survey to determine the short-term extent of delivery disruption.

The Story

Now it was 11:56 am. I stopped to reread the conversation of Gladys Bonatus, and decided that I now had a compelling lead for my article. Her experience — a jumble of contradictory thoughts and actions, seemingly so natural in reacting to disaster — would serve as a powerful introduction to the neighborhood trauma that morning. But how to get back to the office? Locating another nearby phone and asking for someone to pick me up both seemed non-starters, given the roadblocks and the frenetic state that the newsroom must be in.

Then I recalled a corner grocery and laundromat at 30th and Redwood streets with a pay phone; I reckoned it was far enough south that the phone should be working and roads unblocked. It was probably a mile away, but with my clothes already soiled with the stench of disaster, why worry about additional sweat? When I reached the store some 20 minutes later, I scored a minor jackpot. There was a direct phone line to Yellow Cab on the outside wall. By the time I had returned from a dash inside the store for a Coke and cheese crackers, the taxi was waiting. The driver had a straight shot down 30th and then west on Broadway to the office. He cranked his air conditioning to the highest setting, certainly as much to counteract my scent as to ease the heat. But he said nothing, and I was an extravagant tipper that day, compliments of the Los Angeles Times.

By 1:05 pm, after a quick wash-up, I was at my typewriter, too pumped up and nervous to even grab one of the turkey or tuna sandwiches that Dale had ordered up for the staff. The newsroom was not yet as crowded as it would later become; several reporters were still out at the makeshift morgue, at the airport, at hospitals, and at Red Cross and Salvation Army locations. The anecdote with Gladys Bonatus seemed to work perfectly as a lead-in to the other accounts and descriptions I had accumulated. But after thinking it through, I left out her recollection of the little boy and the doorbell, having cringed as I imagined the pain that relatives and others who knew the family would feel to read it less than 24 hours after his death.

Shortly after 3 pm, I had a 1400-word piece to the city desk. That gave local editors enough time — barring the need for major structural rewrites — for a draft copy to be in front of Los Angeles editors for their 3:30 pm meeting to decide Tuesday’s page designs and story positions. Jack borrowed a duplicate to look for details important enough to include in any update of his main piece, otherwise long finished and already on the newswire. As my story completed its wend through preliminary editing, Nancy Skelton appeared in the newsroom. She had spent several hours at the scene after being released from her run-in with the CHP, but had not been in contact with the city desk all day. She was extremely unhappy when, after describing to editors what she had, she was told to give the best material to Jack and other reporters for possible inclusion in their stories. She grew even more upset when she heard that my piece had been scheduled for the front page, thinking of course that she, as a veteran reporter previously with the Sacramento Bee, certainly had the better story — if only she could be given a few hours to write it. In a non-deadline world, or on a day with more flexibility to surmount the constraints of the clock, she might well have been able to prove her point. Nancy was only partially mollified by Dale’s assurance that she would report and write the major follow-up article Tuesday (“Requiem for Dwight Street”) for second-day coverage in Wednesday’s paper. She didn’t speak to me for more than a week. I was a bit flummoxed, having done nothing untoward. But I tucked away an early and powerful lesson about the Darwinian aspects of newsroom culture and competition.

The colleague whom I truly felt sorry for was Ted Vollmer, arguably the best pure reporter in the office. He had called in sick that morning with a stomach flu, and had not learned of the disaster until around noon, when he turned on his television. Mortified to have missed perhaps the biggest story ever to hit San Diego, he had immediately called the city desk, only to be asked if he could come in and file a couple of necessary non-PSA stories that would end up buried inside the local section the next day. Being the loyal trooper that he was, Ted agreed.

The rest of the afternoon was spent largely rechecking details for accuracy and checking with other reporters to make sure everyone was working from the same set of basic facts. As telephone service was restored to the stricken neighborhood, I called some of the individuals I had interviewed to confirm the unusual spelling of their names and to ask if they had anything additional they wanted to add. To a person, they were all subdued, thankful to have survived but, as I gathered from the tone of their voices, nevertheless excited that their eyewitness accounts would be memorialized in print. At 5:45 pm, Jerry Belcher, a veteran deadline reporter and rewrite specialist in the L.A. newsroom whose narratives flowed like hot butter, rang me. He suggested a couple of fixes to smooth the Bonatus anecdote and emphasize the searing experience the neighborhood had undergone — and which he himself felt during his reading. I would have been too drained to argue had I disagreed, but as it was, his edits indeed added several nice segues between quotes.

In 12 hours, that story would be read by a million subscribers, and soon after, it would become yesterday’s news for the vast majority. For myself, and I’m certain for those I encountered on that long-ago Monday who are alive today, the day remains a collection of indelible memories.

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As we drove onto the 163 and took to the Richmond Street exit to Upas, thick black smoke was spreading throughout the sky.
As we drove onto the 163 and took to the Richmond Street exit to Upas, thick black smoke was spreading throughout the sky.

Even after the passage of 44 years, the tiniest of details still remains fresh when I relive the hot awful Monday of September 25, 1978 in San Diego. At fifty seconds past 9 am, above El Cajon Boulevard at 38th Street, the right wing of a Pacific Southwest Airlines jet descending in a turn toward Lindbergh Field was gashed from below by a single-engine Cessna that the 727 pilot had lost sight of. Killed were the two Cessna pilots, all 135 PSA passengers and crew, and seven people on the ground where the jet plunged into houses along Dwight Street between Nile and Boundary streets in North Park.

I was a young reporter fewer than six months into a journalism career, working for the San Diego County edition of the Los Angeles Times. The crash of flight 182, the deadliest ever in U.S aviation at the time and still the worst in San Diego history, would serendipitously result in my first front-page byline. A few weeks ago, while reshuffling boxes in the garage, I came across the notebook I used that morning to cover the apocalyptic scene. And all the memories surfaced again.

The County’s official photographer Hans Wendt heard a pop skywards, looked up to see the 727 hurtling out-of-control to the ground, and instinctively reacted, snapping a color photo of the stricken jet with its right wing aflame. It became the iconic visual of the accident.

Dispatch

On the morning of the 25th, I had arrived early to the eighth-floor newsroom, in the Central Federal Tower at 3rd and Broadway, planning to call the County’s Air Pollution Control District about unhealthy smog that was predicted to envelop the city on a hot Santa Ana day, with temperatures rising to record triple digits. It turned out that the APCD had scheduled an 8:30 am demonstration of experimental vapor-recovery gas pump handles at the Go-Lo station in North Park on University Avenue at 32nd Street — by happenstance, only three blocks north from where PSA would plummet.

But I missed notice of the event, having worked the previous Friday in San Onofre on a story about Amtrak engineers injured by rock-throwing inebriates targeting nighttime trains along the beachside track. (The County’s official photographer Hans Wendt was at the Go-Lo when he heard a pop skywards, looked up to see the 727 hurtling out-of-control to the ground, and instinctively reacted, snapping a color photo of the stricken jet with its right wing aflame. It became the iconic visual of the accident.)

So I was on the phone to Dick Smith, APCD assistant director, both to develop the smog story and include information about the new pump handles I had missed acquiring by not being at the Go-Lo. I absentmindedly looked out the window adjoining my pod to the northeast and saw angry black smoke billowing over the Broadway skyline. Simultaneously, senior reporter Jack Jones, who was manning the city desk until the usual arrival of editors around 10 am, was motioning frantically for me to get off the line. He looked stricken. He had been monitoring the police-fire radio frequencies when he heard this chilling transmission:

“San Diego dispatch, Engine 14” — from John Allen, one of the Station 14 crew members from 32nd Street and Lincoln Avenue who were on their daily run at Morley Field.

“Engine 14,” Fire Dispatch replied.

“An airliner has crashed in the vicinity of Interstate 805 and University and we are responding from Morley Field,” Allen panted, his voice trembling.

Three seconds of silence. Then Dispatch queried, “Engine 14, are you responding to a vehicle fire?”

“Negative, San Diego, this is an airliner crash at approximately 805 and University. We are responding.”

I mumbled a quick, “Dick, I gotta go” into the phone, and bolted to the city desk, where Jack shouted that a passenger jet had crashed, and pleaded with me to hustle over to the 805 and University with photographer Bob Lachman, who had caught the same scanner traffic while working in the photo lab and was already at the office door, loaded down with his camera bag, ready to go. The elevator ride down eight floors to the lobby and then two floors to P2 in a separate lift seemed, at the time, the longest three minutes of my career.

As Lachman gunned his car out of the skyscraper garage, its shoebox-sized radiotelephone buzzed with information from reporter Nancy Ray, who had arrived at the office and was helping Jack monitor emergency radio traffic. She told us the plane was a Western Airlines 727 (such is the fog of early news reports) and that police and California Highway Patrol were already setting up roadblocks as dozens of fire engines and rescue vehicles swarmed the area. As we drove onto the 163 and took to the Richmond Street exit to Upas, thick black smoke was spreading throughout the sky.

Arrival on Scene

Having spent many days around Morley Field as a kid, I was able to direct Lachman along the side streets to the south of the crash site, taking Upas to Herman to Thorn to Felton to Myrtle — correctly assuming that those little-trafficked thoroughfares would be the last to be blocked off. (Times reporter Nancy Skelton, having heard the news while still at home, got caught up later at one of the barricades that was keeping traffic from exiting the south 805 at University, and lost more than an hour in a contentious standoff with a CHP officer before a San Diego police official who had been called to the scene waved her through, anxious to forego an arrest and an additional headache, given the far more serious matters only a stone’s throw away.) When Lachman reached Myrtle and Boundary, a block south of the impact, I got out and urged him to get back to the office as soon as he had good shots and not worry about a rendezvous with me later.

I was wearing suit pants, a blue dress shirt and maroon tie, and I was already sweating through them with nervous anticipation as I ran up Boundary toward the epicenter, the heat made worse by a baking sun, and my nerves made worse by the acrid smell of metal, jet fuel, household goods, baggage items and, yes, flesh, all burning furiously together and foretelling a horrible story. It was 9:23 am. I recalled what Jack had imparted to me months earlier about reporting, after he had watched me having to revamp a story several times by adding needed details: “Make like a vacuum cleaner and suck up everything you can, and don’t worry about shaping it until later.” Fortuitously, I made a snap decision to get a phone number from every witness interviewed, which served me well, both at the time and a decade later in revisiting the scene for a story looking back into history. I just didn’t want to panic the way I saw a friend from the The San Diego Union do, running past me, away from the flaming wreckage, moaning how awful everything was. Don’t picture yourself on that plane, I admonished myself. (That would come after everything was over.)

I came across the notebook I used that morning to cover the apocalyptic scene. And all the memories surfaced again.

The first dozen pages of my spiral notebook reveal an initial hour or so of frenzied interviews and brief descriptions which, more than four decades later, I can still picture vividly. Flecks of blood and remnants of clothing along with large and small pieces of the plane, interior and exterior, were strewn haphazardly up and down the Boundary block. Two passenger seats sat perfectly upright in the middle of the street. I nearly tripped over parts of a shoe, then blanched at a discolored bare foot alongside the curb, next to a record album. Everywhere, residents, numbed by the cacophony of sirens and exploding debris, were trying to comprehend both what had happened and why they had been spared when others just two or three or four doors away had either been killed or had their homes torn apart, or both. Pham Thanh, a refugee from Vietnam only nine months in San Diego, described how the windows of his house had been blown out by the plane’s nearby impact, and how he had found a wall of flame as he opened the door and ran away from “everything that seemed to be red all at once.” I noticed that his hand had been cut, but his adrenaline was still so high that the pain hadn’t yet fully registered. He went off looking for an EMT or nurse as emergency vehicles became visible on the next block.

There were more blood-spattered house-steps and trembling witnesses as I reached the point near Dwight where the main part of the fuselage had disintegrated. The tail-mounted rear engine with its PSA logo, charred but still readable, rested on its side, half-destroyed amidst the burning rubble that moments earlier had been dwellings. Resident Allan Stageberg heard the sound of air whizzing past his house and then an explosion that violently shook the structure. He knew it was a jet when he opened his door and saw fire engulfing the aircraft and a row of houses burning across the street on the south side of Dwight. As he spoke to me, two firemen sat on a nearby curb receiving supplemental oxygen to counteract the foul air. “We get planes coming low over us all the time on their way to landing at the airport, so for me it was just a matter of time before something like this happened,” said Stageberg. (In the aftermath of the crash, air traffic control procedures were changed so that all planes now land under mandatory tower direction, with southbound craft required to make a wide 180-degree turn 10 miles to the east, beginning above La Mesa, and then line up for a long straight glide into the airport, rather than turning over Mission Valley on a tight approach into Lindbergh Field.)

I espied Rev. Patrick Grace of the Academy of Our Lady of Peace in University Heights, who had rushed over to try and help in any way possible. “I had heard there might be injured, so I’m here in case there is anything I can do,” he told me forlornly as he watched dozens of firefighters maneuvering to get the upper hand on the fires. “But now, there’s really nothing I can do except pray.” I noticed a second priest on the Nile side of the wreckage saying the last rites of the Catholic Church over a couple of blanket-covered bodies. I couldn’t get over to talk to him, but Rev. Grace thought he might be from nearby St. Augustine High School six blocks south, where later in the morning, the County Coroner would set up a temporary morgue in the school’s gymnasium (and where one of our youngest reporters would become physically ill by evening from watching body bags — that eventually totaled 143 — steadily arrive, filled by deputy coroners and enlisted Navy and Marine personnel pressed into service to comb the site for remains.)

The Front Page

By that juncture, I had written “10:04 a.m.” in my notebook. It had been a little more than an hour since the two planes had collided. (By then, the city desk was aware of the Cessna, and had dispatched two reporters to the North Park intersection of Polk and 32nd streets where it had crashed.) I looked around for colleagues, amid the mob of emergency workers and spectators, but I could spot only Lachman and a second Times photographer who had joined him. Later, the paper would charter a helicopter to get an overhead photo of the carnage.

It occurred to me that I should find a telephone and let the city desk know where I was and what I had so far. That task turned out to require more than a half hour: I spent much of the time looking for a working phone. Power had been turned off in the area because of damaged lines and fear of sparking, and telephone service was spotty, as phone cables were attached to the same electric utility poles. I knocked on a half-dozen doors along Boundary north of Dwight, where miraculously there had been no damage; the area plowed by the plane was mercifully limited to a single block, due to the steep angle at which it had fallen. When I finally found a residence with a functioning phone, the owner eyed me warily even after I flashed my newspaper identification and San Diego Police press pass. A ten-dollar bill sealed the deal — much to my irritation. I felt momentarily like a cliché reporter as pictured in an old ‘B’ movie. In any event, the man pointed me to an old-style phone, and I dialed into the office and was put through immediately to Jack, a consummate professional who now was assembling a crisp, clear main story from a myriad of sources that would be ready well before deadlines for the 2 pm Late Final edition distributed at major Los Angeles newsstands and for worldwide use on the Los Angeles Times-Washington Post joint newswire. Jack was terse and focused, and wanted quick bits of color, witness quotes and names, and any statistical information I had gleaned. I was able to help with the first two, but not the third.

Then my editor Dale Fetherling got on the line and said I absolutely needed to be back no later than 1 pm to start on a color story to run (potentially) alongside the main narrative by Jack in the next-day editions, given the deadlines being placed on him by top editors in Los Angeles. (I learned later that Dale had successfully pushed back against an L.A. editor who wanted to bigfoot the office and send a reporting crew from Los Angeles.) That gave me, at best, a little more than 90 additional minutes at the scene, not counting the time needed to get back downtown amid a chaotic traffic environment. It also added additional pressure, intended or not, to come up with an article compelling enough to pass successfully through a gauntlet of editors. I was no naïf about the rarity of a front-page byline in a profession that often measured success by how many you produced. A page-1 story required more than the average deadline product.

“Are there any bodies around your house?”

Hustling back south on Boundary, I noted that most of the fires were coming under control, and the smoke over the landscape had cleared sufficiently by now to bring into starker relief the violence that had shredded the neighborhood. Doing my best to shrug off the oppressive heat, I continued to record observations as I moved from house to house to talk with more people, while a helicopter hovered overhead with a bullhorn voice ordering all sightseers to leave an area of 24 square blocks immediately or risk arrest. It was 10:41 am.

PSA workers had arrived and were somberly roping off the aircraft wreckage. Perhaps they already knew that in addition to the seven working crew, there had been 18 other PSA employees aboard, San Diego being the company’s main base. On the porch of one house on Boundary, two collection workers gingerly removed a nose and upper lip with a moustache, all stuck to a piece of fiberglass, and placed the body part in a body bag. Firefighters, clad only in boots and shorts because of the heat, set up a ladder to climb the roof of another house where a body rested. As they brought it to the curb to be bagged, a normally stoic police officer cringed and turned away, his eyes tearing momentarily. One worker confessed that he tried not to think about what he was doing because so many bodies had been mangled. He put it delicately: “It’s an understatement to say that what we’re seeing doesn’t look nice at all.” Flies had begun to buzz around the baby blue blankets, held down with rocks, that tirage teams were using to cover body parts not yet placed into bags. The body bags already processed were piling up in the street, each marked with a manila tag specifying the remains inside. In another front yard, student homework papers for a second-grade class in the West Covina Unified School District were scattered randomly on the lawn, together with half of a passenger seat armrest. Three credit cards lay on a neighboring lawn.

A sailor from the destroyer escort USS Stein was fast-walking down Boundary, headed for a house on Felton where his grandmother lived, so I followed. The Navy had permitted emergency leave for anyone with a relative in the area, because no one could get through by telephone. The sailor, Steve Abernathy, spotted his frail, white-haired grandmother Catherine Lambert in front of her house and rushed to embrace her. She was still a little shaky, even though the only damage to her property was from a Timex watch that had rocketed forth from the jet’s impact and slammed against her living room window, creating a small crack. A full armrest ended up in her laundry handbasket in the backyard.

I looped back to Dwight after collecting more eyewitness accounts, and in the intense sunlight, caught the flash of a man wearing red overalls as he was walking toward Niles Street. Catching up with him, I learned that he was a deputy coroner, setting out to talk with an elderly woman outside a Niles house just north of the corner whose backyard appeared singed. She was in animated conversation with a neighbor, explaining how she felt so lucky to be alive as the plane had nose-dived, only 100 feet further south, into neighboring houses. “The Good Lord must have been watching over me even though on Saturday night it had been so hot, I had decided that I wouldn’t go to church on Sunday.” The woman, 79-year-old Gladys Bonatus, had lived in the house for 42 years, and averred that in all that time, she had never liked the airplanes overhead, and probably would like them even less now. The deputy coroner stepped forth and gently interrupted the conversation, his manner almost apologetic. “Ma’am, I’m the coroner. I hate to put it this way, but are there any bodies around your house?” She didn’t say anything, but simply pointed to the backyard, and the deputy motioned to two Navy men trailing him to bring a couple of body bags.

Turning back to her neighbor and acknowledging my presence, Bonatus felt compelled to explain why she was clutching a small brown paper sack. It contained some money and her pocketbook, which she had earlier grabbed after someone had run up the street shouting for everyone to evacuate their homes. “I’m not a miser, but you need money to live.” Her eyes welled up as she described the irrepressible four-year-old boy who lived on the corner with his mother and whose home had been flattened. Both were presumed dead. She spoke haltingly of how he used to come over to her house and stare at the front porch doorbell button because it had a light inside it. He always was asking why a doorbell would need a lighted button, she sobbed.

I thanked her for her time and expressed my relief that she had come through the ordeal without being hurt — though I could tell from the conversation that the crash was going to be on her mind for a long time afterwards. Her sense of things at once arbitrary and spiritual led me to jot down a note about the capriciousness of the entire scene: a multiplex nicknamed Dossie’s with senior citizens largely untouched but the adjacent houses destroyed; residents who knew nothing was amiss until the loud boom of the explosion, while others, like wheelchair-bound Adlyne Ethelridge, saw a body tumble out from the plane after it passed over her backyard no more than 10 feet away, just prior to implosion. There could be no logical explanation for all of this. But my brief foray into philosophical thought ended abruptly when an officer yelled at me to move away from a burnt house with a leg jutting out from a side wall. Walking back over to Boundary, I passed two U.S. postal inspectors who were beginning their required search for any mail salvageable from the crash, and to carry out a neighborhood survey to determine the short-term extent of delivery disruption.

The Story

Now it was 11:56 am. I stopped to reread the conversation of Gladys Bonatus, and decided that I now had a compelling lead for my article. Her experience — a jumble of contradictory thoughts and actions, seemingly so natural in reacting to disaster — would serve as a powerful introduction to the neighborhood trauma that morning. But how to get back to the office? Locating another nearby phone and asking for someone to pick me up both seemed non-starters, given the roadblocks and the frenetic state that the newsroom must be in.

Then I recalled a corner grocery and laundromat at 30th and Redwood streets with a pay phone; I reckoned it was far enough south that the phone should be working and roads unblocked. It was probably a mile away, but with my clothes already soiled with the stench of disaster, why worry about additional sweat? When I reached the store some 20 minutes later, I scored a minor jackpot. There was a direct phone line to Yellow Cab on the outside wall. By the time I had returned from a dash inside the store for a Coke and cheese crackers, the taxi was waiting. The driver had a straight shot down 30th and then west on Broadway to the office. He cranked his air conditioning to the highest setting, certainly as much to counteract my scent as to ease the heat. But he said nothing, and I was an extravagant tipper that day, compliments of the Los Angeles Times.

By 1:05 pm, after a quick wash-up, I was at my typewriter, too pumped up and nervous to even grab one of the turkey or tuna sandwiches that Dale had ordered up for the staff. The newsroom was not yet as crowded as it would later become; several reporters were still out at the makeshift morgue, at the airport, at hospitals, and at Red Cross and Salvation Army locations. The anecdote with Gladys Bonatus seemed to work perfectly as a lead-in to the other accounts and descriptions I had accumulated. But after thinking it through, I left out her recollection of the little boy and the doorbell, having cringed as I imagined the pain that relatives and others who knew the family would feel to read it less than 24 hours after his death.

Shortly after 3 pm, I had a 1400-word piece to the city desk. That gave local editors enough time — barring the need for major structural rewrites — for a draft copy to be in front of Los Angeles editors for their 3:30 pm meeting to decide Tuesday’s page designs and story positions. Jack borrowed a duplicate to look for details important enough to include in any update of his main piece, otherwise long finished and already on the newswire. As my story completed its wend through preliminary editing, Nancy Skelton appeared in the newsroom. She had spent several hours at the scene after being released from her run-in with the CHP, but had not been in contact with the city desk all day. She was extremely unhappy when, after describing to editors what she had, she was told to give the best material to Jack and other reporters for possible inclusion in their stories. She grew even more upset when she heard that my piece had been scheduled for the front page, thinking of course that she, as a veteran reporter previously with the Sacramento Bee, certainly had the better story — if only she could be given a few hours to write it. In a non-deadline world, or on a day with more flexibility to surmount the constraints of the clock, she might well have been able to prove her point. Nancy was only partially mollified by Dale’s assurance that she would report and write the major follow-up article Tuesday (“Requiem for Dwight Street”) for second-day coverage in Wednesday’s paper. She didn’t speak to me for more than a week. I was a bit flummoxed, having done nothing untoward. But I tucked away an early and powerful lesson about the Darwinian aspects of newsroom culture and competition.

The colleague whom I truly felt sorry for was Ted Vollmer, arguably the best pure reporter in the office. He had called in sick that morning with a stomach flu, and had not learned of the disaster until around noon, when he turned on his television. Mortified to have missed perhaps the biggest story ever to hit San Diego, he had immediately called the city desk, only to be asked if he could come in and file a couple of necessary non-PSA stories that would end up buried inside the local section the next day. Being the loyal trooper that he was, Ted agreed.

The rest of the afternoon was spent largely rechecking details for accuracy and checking with other reporters to make sure everyone was working from the same set of basic facts. As telephone service was restored to the stricken neighborhood, I called some of the individuals I had interviewed to confirm the unusual spelling of their names and to ask if they had anything additional they wanted to add. To a person, they were all subdued, thankful to have survived but, as I gathered from the tone of their voices, nevertheless excited that their eyewitness accounts would be memorialized in print. At 5:45 pm, Jerry Belcher, a veteran deadline reporter and rewrite specialist in the L.A. newsroom whose narratives flowed like hot butter, rang me. He suggested a couple of fixes to smooth the Bonatus anecdote and emphasize the searing experience the neighborhood had undergone — and which he himself felt during his reading. I would have been too drained to argue had I disagreed, but as it was, his edits indeed added several nice segues between quotes.

In 12 hours, that story would be read by a million subscribers, and soon after, it would become yesterday’s news for the vast majority. For myself, and I’m certain for those I encountered on that long-ago Monday who are alive today, the day remains a collection of indelible memories.

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Comments
5

A blast from the past to read this firsthand narrative of then-LA Times reporter David Smollar about that unforgettable September morning crash of PSA Flight 182 into San Diego's Normal Heights neighborhood. I remember the Santa Ana and the day as if it were yesterday, but I never read graphic details like those presented here. I wonder if this story is the literary equivalent of those cell phone photos circulated after Kobe Bryant's helicopter crashed in a Los Angeles fogbank a few years ago. In contrast to SoCal native Smollar's brutal detailed recollection,, I am struck by his use of distancing British-ized language. He calls drunks "inebriates," elevators "lifts," himself "no naif," ridding himself of sweat, dust and traces of gore "a quick wash-up." And he describes the public humiliation of a woman reporter in favor of himself by their male editor-boss as an example of the "Darwinian aspects of newsroom culture and competition," rather than the too-common chauvinism and sexism of the time.

Sept. 23, 2022

I don’t believe the unpleasant but riveting experiences of the reporter remotely parallel the Kobe Bryant incident, and I’ll pass on speculating about chauvinism and sexism as that too much of the time becomes a fact-free zone of unmoored speculation. But being a retired English instructor, I would gently point out that “naïf” is of French derivation. In England the more common words are dupe and gullible, as they are in the U.S. Inebriate is from Latin, and in England the most common word for a drunk or inebriate is sot. I suspect the writer’s use of lift as a second reference for elevator was a matter of style in order not to repeat the same word. The entire article is written in an unadorned style (oh dear, am I British-izing by not using plain or direct?) which I imagine a Londoner could find primitive.

Sept. 25, 2022

You defend Smollar's odd style in telling a horrific story. We are aware that a fancy distancing term like "naif" is borrowed from the French and that "sot" is British slang for "inebriate." Also that chauvinism and sexism in 1978 newsrooms were alive and well, just as obliquely described -- not a "fact-free zone of unmoored speculation," as you suggest. It is ironic that today many more women work in journalism just as the newspaper business itself tweeters on the brink of extinction.

Sept. 25, 2022

Lol all I can say is that you certainly have an unusual definition of “odd” in describing the article as oddly written and any word you didn’t hear on the playground in grammar school as “distancing.” Here’s hoping you never taught English or edited an essay other than your own!

Sept. 25, 2022

I appreciate this story too. It's a well-written article. This was a horrific crash, and to nit-pick the way the article was written is absurd. Some people aren't happy unless they have something to be unhappy about. What a miserable way to live. I hope you find happiness within.

Sept. 25, 2022

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