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70 Die as Planes Collide in Air : Wreckage Plunges Into Cerritos, Burning 16 Homes : Mexican Jetliner, Small Craft Intersect on Approach to L.A.

Times Staff Writer

At least 70 people were killed, nine others were injured and 16 houses were set ablaze Sunday when a single-engine light airplane and an Aeromexico DC-9 jetliner collided in flight, crashing to earth in Cerritos and hurling flaming wreckage across a wide area.

The crash occurred at 11:55 a.m., and authorities identified the downed airliner as Aeromexico Flight 498, which was about to land at Los Angeles International Airport after a flight from Mexico City with stops in Guadalajara, Loreto and Tijuana.

Its main passenger cabin crashed upside down and exploded in a residential neighborhood near the corner of Carmenita Road and 183rd Street in Cerritos, damaging houses on Holmes Avenue, Reva Circle and Ashworth Place.

Eyewitnesses’ Accounts

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The cause of the disaster was not immediately determined, but eyewitnesses said they saw the smaller airplane crash into the tail section of the jetliner.

Airline spokesman Guy Arriola said 58 passengers and six crew members were aboard the DC-9 when it went down about 20 miles east of the airport. Three people were reported to have been on board the smaller airplane, which crashed in an empty school yard about two blocks from the wreckage of the airliner.

“We are not aware of any survivors (from the two airplanes),” Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Deputy Drew Basey said.

Three more people were killed when their house at 13426 Ashworth Place was struck by blazing debris and immediately burst into flames, authorities said. No other ground fatalities could be confirmed, but firefighters said seven people were still missing hours after the crash.

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Buena Park Police Officer Phil Martinez said he was on patrol when he saw the jetliner fall to earth--and explode on impact.

Resembled a Balloon

“I thought it was a balloon coming down,” he said. “Then it hit and erupted in yellow and orange fire and smoke. Then I saw a smaller piece--I think it was the tail--coming down, and I knew it was a real disaster.”

Timothy O’Brien, who lives in nearby La Palma, said: “The jet was upside down when it went in. I was coming home from the store and I had a clear view of the whole thing--the last part of it, anyway--and the big plane, the airliner, was upside down and didn’t have a tail when it hit those houses and plowed into the ground and came apart.”

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At least three eyewitnesses said they saw the smaller airplane crash into the tail section of the jetliner, and in Mexico City an Aeromexico spokesman said agents from his company had found eyewitnesses who told them much the same story.

Aeromexico regional manager Rodolfo Casparius said his company’s jetliner was proceeding at its proper altitude, “at correct speed, correctly approaching the airport” when the collision occurred. “It was hit by the smaller plane,” he said, “that had nothing to do being there.”

An FAA spokesman in Los Angeles said the smaller airplane was proceeding under visual flight rules on a flight from Torrance to Big Bear, and was not under direct radio control at the time of the crash. He said the planes were at 6,000 to 7,000 feet in altitude when they collided, but he would not comment on how they came to be in the same airspace.

Flight Recorder Recovered

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The spokesman later reported that one of the airliner’s two flight recorders--the cockpit voice-recorder--had been recovered from the backyard wall of a house in the vicinity of the crash. The flight data recorder, however, was still missing.

A team of investigators from the National Transportation Safety Board was dispatched from Washington, and Mexican authorities said they were sending their own investigators as well.

Within moments after the collision, the suburban neighborhood below was in chaos.

Burned-out vehicles and debris from the planes littered the streets, and the silvery steel and aluminum cockpit of the jetliner--a charred and shattered chunk of debris about the size of an automobile--lay on Carmenita Road, not far from the spot where it had crashed through a brick wall.

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Checking Identities

Hours after the crash, coroner’s officials were still struggling to collect and identify the remains of victims, which littered streets, lawns and even trees, while firefighters continued to pick their way carefully through burned out homes, checking room-by-room in an effort to make sure that no one had been trapped inside.

“At least nine of the houses were totally destroyed,” said Los Angeles County Fire Department spokeswoman Cathy Herrod. “Five others were too severely damaged to be habitable, and two other houses were less seriously damaged.”

The search for bodies was abandoned for the night at 8:30 p.m., but sheriff’s deputies set up barricades around the impact area, allowing no one to enter--including residents. The search was scheduled to resume at 6 a.m. today.

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Two suspected looters were arrested Sunday afternoon.

Sheriff’s Deputy Lynda Edmonds said a 23-year-old Oxnard man was arrested on suspicion of destroying evidence, a misdemeanor, when he was found in possession of a piece of the jetliner, and a 23-year-old Long Beach man was arrested on suspicion of receiving stolen property, a felony, when he was found to have items stolen from one of the fire-damaged homes.

Monsignor Timothy O’Connell of St. Linus Roman Catholic Church in Norwalk gave final rites to the victims at the scene. “I’ve already prayed for those who were killed,” he said, “and I’ve prayed for the relatives of the workers who are helping so well and I hope to help the relatives as soon as they come along.”

The horizontal stabilizer of the Aeromexico DC-9 fell nearly intact a few blocks from the main crash site, flattening the rear of a car, and parts of the orange rudder of the jetliner were strewn over the lawn of a nearby church.

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The smaller airplane, identified as a Piper PA-28 Archer, a low wing, single-engine monoplane, crashed on the grounds of Cerritos Elementary School, across the street from where the tail of the airliner came to earth.

An NTSB investigator at the scene said the smaller airplane appeared to have suffered a severe blow on its cockpit and a glancing blow on the inboard section of its left wing. It was intact, except for the top of the cockpit, which had been sheared off, apparently by the force of its impact with a larger object--presumably the airliner. He said the Piper did not burn and seemed to have scattered little or no debris.

Bodies Found in Craft

Witnesses said the remains of a man and woman were in the front seats, and the body of a third person--possibly a female child--was in the rear. All had apparently been decapitated, the witnesses said. They were not immediately identified.

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California Highway Patrol Officer Lyle Whitten said the smaller airplane “looked like a toy” as it fluttered down from the sky. “For just a moment,” Whitten said, “I couldn’t believe it was a real airplane. It looked like a toy . . . but then it hit the ground and you could see it wasn’t a toy, and then for a moment I just wanted to cry.”

At Los Angeles International Airport, Aeromexico station manager Armando Charles identified the pilot of the DC-9 as veteran airline Capt. Arturo Valdez Prom, and said Prom had spoken to company officials on the ground about five minutes before the crash.

“At 11:50,” Charles said, “we communicated with the plane via (company) radio. The pilot said everything was correct and on schedule. He was due to arrive (at the airport) in 15 minutes.

“Five or ten minutes later, he spoke to the (Los Angeles International) tower . . . and then suddenly they just disappeared from the radar screen.”

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Charles said he did not know the content of Prom’s final message.

Some Tourists on Board

He said the passengers on board were a mixture of Mexican nationals and U.S. tourists--including at least one infant and six children under 12 years of age.

Friends and relatives of many of the passengers were waiting for them at the airport. Those waiting for Flight 498 were ushered into a private area at the Tom Bradley International Terminal and informed of the disaster.

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Garciela Natividad of Los Angeles said she had been expecting a relative on the flight. She said everyone was “crying and waiting for word” of their loved ones.

“And some of us were praying,” said Eduardo Juarez, who was waiting for his daughter-in-law. “We were praying that a car had broken down or a taxi was late or a seat was already filled . . . that the people we love so much had missed that plane!”

Aeromexico representative Casparius toured the crash site Sunday evening.

“It’s terrible,” he said, “when you . . . see the area and the bodies. It’s hard to explain. I feel very sorry for everyone aboard and very sorry for the families.”

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Help for the Injured

The Red Cross set up a triage center in the basement of a General Telephone building, where several people received first aid and others were dispatched to hospitals for treatment of more serious injuries.

Four of the people injured on the ground were taken to Pioneer Hospital in Artesia, and three others to La Palma Hospital.

Pioneer Hospital authorities said Wesley Neally, 39, suffered burns of the shoulders and arms while helping his wife, 8-year-old daughter and an unidentified young friend escape from their burning home, which had been struck by debris from the DC-9. Neally, an inspector with the Los Angeles County Department of Weights and Measures, was released from the hospital late Sunday afternoon.

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Pioneer Hospital nursing supervisor Gladys Yoshii said a firefighter with a minor arm burn refused treatment and went home, and a pregnant woman whose house apparently also burned collapsed and was under treatment for shock.

Another man who lived near the scene came in complaining of shortness of breath and was kept for observation. Except for Neally, names of the others were not released.

At La Palma Hospital, two Orange County firefighters and a Newport Beach firefighter were treated for smoke inhalation. All were released.

Moment of Terror Told

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Several Cerritos residents remembered moments of terror:

“I heard a noise and I told my wife it could be thunder,” said Edward Real, who lives in the 17900 block of Holmes Avenue. “But then everything went up. It (part of the jetliner) hit my bedroom window.”

Real said he told his family to get on the floor. “I saw glass flying,” he said, “and I picked up my little boy and everybody got out safely.”

John Choi, 15, returned from church with his parents and two sisters to find bedlam. The family lives several doors from the homes destroyed in the crash.

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“We’re thanking God for it. We were supposed to go to Mass at 10 o’clock and we went at 11:30,” Choi said.

His house was untouched, but a covered body lay in the front yard. His sisters’ faces were wet with tears as they looked on.

Fifty-three fire units from six agencies, five fire helicopters and 19 ambulances responded to the scene, and managed to save several houses where flames had not gotten a good foothold--but other homes were almost entirely burned out by the time units arrived. Paramedics moved solemnly among the strewn bodies, making sure that no sign of life remained before moving on to the next.

“There’s nothing really we can do,” one said. “Nothing.”

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The following reporters and photographers contributed to the coverage of the air disaster:

Reporters Jerry Belcher, Leslie Berkman, Bill Billiter, Steven R. Churm, Cathleen Decker, David Ferrell, David Freed, Scott Harris, Marita Hernandez, Maria L. La Ganga, Kristina Lindgren, Eric Malnic, T.W. McGarry, Penelope McMillan, Richard E. Meyer, Patt Morrison, Pamela Moreland, Dave Palermo, Jeffrey A. Perlman, Mark I. Pinsky, David Reyes and George Stein.

Photographers Gary Ambrose, Lacy Atkins, Tony Bullard, Larry Davis, Mike Edwards, Robert Gabriel, Don Kelsen, Tom Kelsey, Joe Kennedy, Robert Lachman, Mike Meadows, Sam Mircovich, Lori Shepler and David Swanson.


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