The day that broke the heart of a city
I had not planned on visiting an airplane crash on my birthday but that’s the way this job treats you. You think the biggest part of your afternoon will involve a chocolate cake. Then an airliner comes screaming down into a neighborhood nearby. For a medic, watching the action unfold on television isn’t really an option, even on your day off.
So within eight minutes after it happened, by 9:10 in the morning, I was there, walking slowly towards a wall of flames of the worst airline disaster – up till then – in U.S. history. PSA Flight #182 had collided with a tiny Cessna training plane a half-mile above the city of San Diego. And seventeen seconds after the two planes struck each other, the monstrous Boeing 727 exploded into a quiet residential nook, splattering wreckage throughout four city blocks of the neighborhood we call North Park. The impact was literally earth-shaking – powerful enough to register several ticks on the Richter earthquake scale. It took the thunder ball all of three seconds to incinerate 22 houses and a dozen cars – as well as trees, front porches, power lines, telephone poles and a playful little pit bull lounging on a lawn. The human toll was unspeakable: 128 passengers. Seven flight crew. Seven more in homes and cars. Two pilots in the Cessna on a city street not far away. The carnage was – as the National Transportation Safety Board determined – the ugly result of three tiny human errors that occurred within a frighteningly brief period of time. Sometimes that’s all it takes. A year later the NTSB report would say this:
The causes of the crash were threefold:
- •• The PSA flight crew did not advise the control tower that they had lost sight of the smaller plane, after initially answering that they had the Cessna in sight
- • The pilots of the Cessna failed to maintain their assigned heading, as instructed by the tower
- • The ATC controller failed to advise the airliner that the Cessna had veered toward its glide path, even though his warning alert had sounded, telling him the planes were on a collision course
And so it all came to this, and a quiet California neighborhood now resembled your worst vision of ground zero.