Banishing Fears : Cerritos Turns to Healing After Debris Is Cleared

Times Staff Writers

In the childish block print of a 7-year-old, Diane Fisher wrote about what happened to her Labor Day Weekend.

Taking up pencil and paper on her own, she wrote about the window that shattered, about the flames that kept her, a friend and the friend’s parents from escaping through the front door and about leaping over fences to save themselves.

“Wes was burned BAD! Carmeen was petrified! . . . I was scared!” the youngster wrote within hours after a single-engine aircraft and an Aeromexico DC-9 collided in flight and crashed into a quiet Cerritos neighborhood that Sunday a few minutes before noon.

Diane, her father said, seems to have weathered the experience well.


Concern for Survivors

But social workers, mental health professionals and city officials are expressing concern about the survivors of the disaster that devastated a northeast section of the middle- to upper-middle-class neighborhood. They have banded together to offer free counseling, hold mental health meetings and set up special programs not only for survivors like Diane but also for emergency workers who had the grim task of combing through the debris and for ordinary citizens affected by the deaths.

Psychologist Patrick D. O’Connor, director of outpatients at Rio Hondo Community Mental Health Center in Cerritos, has led a “community response crisis team” of about 25 ministers, priests and mental health experts who went door-to-door through the neighborhood to counsel residents who might need help.

“The scars won’t heal early. We are trying to develop a critical list, including people who can’t sleep, (who) are just sitting and staring, not eating. We will especially be looking at children,” he said.


Four meetings have been held

this week and last to help people work through their feelings associated with the crash. “It was sort of a catharsis, a healing process,” said O’Connor, who said about 150 people attended the first session.

In addition, Steven Clagett, community services coordinator for the center, said mental health experts have been going to the homes of people who have requested counseling.

The response to help in the crisis had been a total community effort, O’Connor said. Help from many groups, including mental health professionals, ministers, firemen, Red Cross representatives, city officials and others, has been spectacular, O’Connor said.


The healing process will take some time, O’Connor said, because “there have been psychological injuries which vary from family to family and from person to person and age to age.”

Some people are going through a denial period, some are still in shock, some are angry while other feel helplessness, the psychologist said.

“Some people get frightened and want to hide when they hear a helicopter overhead. Others are feeling violated by the onlookers and the media,” he said.

Schools Offer Counseling


O’Connor is not the only one worried about children in the area. When school opens Monday in the ABC Unified School District, psychological counseling will be offered to students attending district schools, said Terry McAlpine, district public information officer.

The wreckage of the small plane landed in the playground of Cerritos Elementary School. Before school starts, teachers at this school and Carmenita Junior High and Cerritos High School will be trained how to answer questions posed by students about the crash, look for unusual reactions and behavior it may cause and alert district psychologists to students who may be having problems, McAlpine said.

Meanwhile, the city continues to clean up the physical damage caused by the crash. On Saturday, nine of the damaged homes were demolished. Sixteen dump trucks hauled more than 1,600 tons of debris and rubble from those lots, said Michele Ogle, a spokeswoman for the city. Repairs will begin soon on seven other homes.

Ogle said city officials have set up a special process by which residents who choose to rebuild can get swift approval of their plans. So far, the city has received plans from one family and given the go ahead for the repair of their home, which was partially damaged.


A special fund to aid victims of the disaster has raised nearly $60,000, including more than $5,300 collected at a special service Sunday attended by about 500 mourners, Ogle said. It has not been determined how the money will be distributed.

Clagett, of the Rio Hondo Center, said that although the healing process is a slow one, he has already seen “quite a bit of progress” since last week.

Steve Fisher says his daughter seems to have handled the traumatic experience with no lingering effects.

Diane, who received only minor scratches, is “now very calm. She was crying when she was first brought home. We were horrified,” Fisher said. The Fisher family’s home is about a mile north of the Holmes Avenue house where Diane was playing with her friend, Reanna Neally.


Sleep Untroubled

“I asked her (Diane) if she is having any dreams about it. She says no. She laughs and says she can’t remember her dreams anyway,” Fisher said. “Someone called us on the phone and asked if she needed counseling and I said I didn’t think it was necessary.

“She has bounced back pretty good. Of course, she has a home to go to while . . . the others. . . . It’s just horrible . . . what can you say?”

Diane and Reanna, 8, were playing with their dolls when portions of the doomed jet fell on the house.


Diane escaped with Reanna and her parents, Wesley and Carmine Neally, by climbing over backyard fences as the Neally home and others nearby burned. Neally, who was cut and burned, was briefly hospitalized.

The Neally family is staying with relatives in Anaheim, according to Steve Fisher.

Diane was matter-of-fact last week about her experience. Of her essay, she said: “I just had to do something to remember it.”