‘Painful Healing Process’ Begins for Cerritos Survivors

Times Staff Writer

Outside the gymnasium at Cerritos College on Sunday, the mourner’s cheeks were wet when she hugged a man she has always smiled at when their shopping carts passed in the aisles of the local Alpha Beta.

The man, Dennis McIllwain, had lost his wife, Linda, a week earlier, when an Aeromexico DC-9 jetliner--after colliding with a smaller plane--screamed out of the sky and exploded, transforming the McIllwain’s Cerritos home and others in the neighborhood into a graveyard.

All 67 passengers and crew members in the two planes were killed, and another 15 people on the ground are presumed dead.

“I got into my car to help, but the houses were burning,” Susan Parker, who lived a couple of blocks from the McIllwains’, told the widower. “There wasn’t anyone to save.”


The tall, gaunt man returned her hug and nodded gratefully. Then he joined about 500 others who had gathered in the bleachers and on the Cerritos Falcons’ basketball court to make some sense of the tragedy.

For the next 90 minutes, a dozen ministers and priests, gathered for an ecumenical service called “A Celebration of Life: Remembrance and Renewal,” tried to lessen the grief for those who came.

From a platform hidden by huge bouquets of carnations and daisies and mums, the message they imparted was one of hope. And those in the audience, some dressed in their Sunday best, some in jeans and sneakers, listened intently. The only sounds came from an occasional crying baby and the creak of the bleachers when latecomers arrived.

The Rev. Marvin Abrams of the Native American United Methodist Church in Norwalk shared with the crowd the experience of one man who lost his brother. Walking in the rubble of his brother’s home last week the man prayed: “ ‘I need your strength God! Give me your strength!’ ”


When the man kicked at the ashes, he found his brother’s Indian leggings, dancing stick and other family heirlooms.

“ ‘These have helped me to become strong,’ ” the man told Abrams. “ ‘These have comforted me.’ ”

There were no angry words Sunday.

“Today and in the future, it is not our purpose to blame. . . . Our purpose, as soon as the tragedy started, was to heal,” Cerritos Mayor Don Knabe said. “We must begin that painful process of healing.”


During the service, ushers passed around large white buckets to collect cash and checks for the disaster fund established by the city. The purpose is to help defray the cost of expenses for residents who lost their families and homes after the crash.

“There is a practical way to love and care, that is to open our pocketbooks,” said the Rev. Herbert Carson, a local Baptist minister who had pitched in at the Red Cross center set up after the disaster.

The service seemed to be of some comfort. At the conclusion, strangers, friends and families shook hands and hugged. Some cried. Others flashed feeble smiles.

Parker, a 34-year-old medical assistant, observed:


“I hadn’t been able to cry, except for today.”