I don’t fly. Have not flown since 1979. I have good reason not to want to board a passenger airplane. I witnessed the results of an in-flight crash in San Diego in 1978.
Pacific Southwest Airlines flight 182 was making its approach to Lindbergh Field. It was a beautiful summer day, visibility was great, the temperatures were rising. A good day to go to the beach, since the Santa Ana conditions promised to raise the mercury to at least one hundred degrees by noon. I was listening to KCBQ’s classic oldies radio broadcast, singing along with the Supremes to “Reflections” and poking along through traffic on University Avenue, near the Rexall drug store at the corner of 32nd Street. I was on my way to pick up my best friend, Lisa Simmons, and I was running late. It was close to nine o’clock, and we had agreed to leave her house by eight-thirty. We wanted to work on our tans and check out the guys on their surfboards. Traffic was thick, so I turned off the radio. I always paid better attention when the music was off.
Overhead, I heard a jet engine whining. I saw the plane right away. It was low, but that was nothing new. This neighborhood had taken these jumbo jets and their noisy take-offs and descents for granted for years. At least Lisa didn’t live anywhere near Laurel Street. On Laurel, waiting at stoplights, people still cringed when one of those 727’s passed above the cars, wings just missing buildings and power lines. I stopped breathing at the lights on Laurel, and my eyes followed the eerie shadow of the Goliath planes. I never inhaled until I was certain the monsters weren’t about to land on me.
Brake lights slammed on ahead of me, so I slowed down. Then I heard it. The sound of a collision. Everything stopped. Everyone stopped at once, and turned toward the sound. I saw the plane, but now it seemed angled far too steeply, and its right wing was engulfed in flames. This plane was going down, and it was nowhere near Laurel or the airport. I reacted like someone having an out-of-body episode. All I knew at that moment was that I had to get out of this snarled traffic, get to Lisa’s house. Then I heard the impact, an explosion. It sounded like a bomb had just descended, and I was having trouble holding onto the steering wheel.
I turned onto Lisa’s street relieved to see that her house was still standing. Her street was intact. But, the huge, black mushroom cloud was ominous ahead of me. I knew the plane had gone down in Lisa’s neighborhood, and I knew it was a bad accident.
Lisa was sitting on her porch staring toward the smoke-filled area. “People fell out of the sky,” she said. I couldn’t convince her to leave the porch. She looked both catatonic and wildly feral. I called her mother at work, explaining what had happened. Lisa’s mother suggested we go to her sister’s house on Marlborough Avenue, ten blocks northeast. “Is it OK if we take the bus?” I asked. I didn’t want to drive anywhere. I was beginning to shake.
I led Lisa off the porch, and away from the devastation. Even though we skirted the emergency crews and the bulk of the debris, it was impossible not to notice parts and pieces of the aircraft. I tried not to think about what other pieces and parts might be strewn around.
I have nightmares about plane crashes. I don’t know whether I saw any of the carnage reported on the news in the area. I don’t think Lisa did. It was bad enough to imagine body parts and burnt corpses. I haven’t written about September 25, 1978 since PSA flight 182 went down that morning in North Park. It was the first accident for PSA, the worst in aviation history at that time in the United States. The fatalities totaled 144 (135 on board the commercial aircraft, 2 in the Cessna it collided with, and 7 people on the ground). Twenty-two homes were destroyed. The History Channel aired a documentary in 2010 called “The World’s Most Extreme Airports,” mentioning the crash of PSA 182.
I don’t know what the statute of limitations is for the memory of horrific events, but I have not forgotten the fate of PSA’s flight 182. I don’t fly. Nothing could persuade me to board a commercial airplane after realizing that Lisa’s house was about thirty feet from the edge of the debris field on Boundary Street. I have an aversion to running late, as well. If Lisa’s house had been nearer to the crash site, how would I have managed to console myself for running late?