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'Sledgehammer from the sky:' Cerritos air disaster's long shadow

Wednesday marked the 30th anniversary of one of Southern California’s most devastating air disasters.

Two planes — a jetliner and small single-engine aircraft — collided over Cerritos. Here’s an account of the crash and its aftermath from The Times’ archives: 

“An Aeromexico DC-9 had left Loreto, Mexico, early in the morning of Aug. 31, 1986, carrying 64 passengers. As it passed about 6,000 feet above Cerritos en route to Los Angeles International Airport, the jet was clipped by a single-engine plane flown by William Kramer of Rancho Palos Verdes.”

Kramer and his wife and daughter were killed instantly. The damaged jet lost control and crashed into a quiet neighborhood just before noon.

A Times headline the next morning described it as 'a sledgehammer from the sky.’

 

In addition to the 67 people killed in the two planes, 15 Cerritos residents died amid the flaming wreckage and burning jet fuel that destroyed at least eight homes.

In Cerritos, the emotional wounds from the crash took time to heal. In 2006, a memorial next to City Hall was completed and dedicated. The sculpture bears the names of all of the victims.

Cerritos residents also formed a group that offered support for Loreto, including equipment for its hospital. Loreto officials were on hand for the memorial dedication.

"They felt the same pain that we did," the founder of the Friends of Loreto Foundation said in 2006.

The crash highlighted problems with air traffic control systems. In response, the Federal Aviation Administration has tightened airspace restrictions around LAX and other major airports. 

The horror of the crash was captured in a Times retrospective published 10 years after the tragedy:

The last time Jeffrey McIllwain saw his mother, she was standing on the porch in a house dress, saying that she loved him.

For goodness sake, he thought with the embarrassment of a 16-year-old, I'm only going to church.

At 11:52 a.m. on Aug. 31, 1986, while McIllwain was still at Sunday school, an Aeromexico DC-9 on approach to Los Angeles International Airport from Mexico collided with a small plane and slammed into the boy's neighborhood. His mother, Linda, 14 others in their houses, and 67 people aboard the two planes were killed that sunny Sunday.

It was an improbable, unthinkable tragedy: Planes plunging from blue skies into a quiet, suburban neighborhood, slaughtering people in their homes, showering body parts everywhere. Never had so many been killed on the ground as the result of an airline crash in the United States.

scott.harrison@latimes.com

Shelby Grad contributed to this report.


UPDATES:

5:22 p.m.: This story was updated with additional information about the crash.

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