Fear Grows: 'Are We Going to Be Next?'

Times Staff Writers

Arlene and Ed Hall have lived just south of the runway at John Wayne Airport for 23 years. When the Santa Ana Heights couple heard the news of Sunday's fiery crash of a Northwest Airlines jetliner in Detroit, Arlene said they reacted with the same response: "Are we going to be next?"

The Halls are not alone in their concern about living so close to John Wayne, one of Southern California's busiest airports, with 85 to 92 commercial jet flights arriving and a like number departing each day.

"Anytime you hear of an airplane accident, first of all you're thankful it didn't happen here," said Mike Odegaard, a recent UC Irvine graduate who lives with his parents on Pegasus Street in Santa Ana Heights, the unincorporated community near the airport. "But because of the amount of flights that go through here, the odds are (that) that it is going to happen."

Studies have indicated that the chances of being killing in a commercial airline flight are extremely small, just 1 in 3 million, according to one government report. But an airline crash, such as this week's in Detroit or last summer's in Cerritos, leaves a powerful impression that is not easily forgotten.

The crash of Northwest Flight 255 in Detroit is the second-worst single plane crash in U.S. history and came less than two weeks before the first anniversary of the air disaster in Cerritos that killed 82 people, including 15 on the ground, when an Aeromexico jet slammed into an upper-middle-class neighborhood.

The Detroit disaster left some Cerritos residents uneasy.

"When I heard about it, I got weak and started to flash on what happened in Cerritos," Denise Guzman said Tuesday. She lost five relatives in the Aug. 31 accident, which occurred after a small private plane struck the Aeromexico jetliner.

"Every time there is a crash, I remember our family's grief and the grief others now will experience," said Guzman, a Cerritos resident and owner of a Whittier beauty salon, who spends much of her spare time trying to raise money to open a counseling center for relatives and friends of people who die in airplane accidents.

"It's hard to feel safe in the skies anymore," she said.

The Detroit disaster, Cerritos Councilwoman Ann B. Joynt said Tuesday, has been a painful reminder of the Aeromexico tragedy: "It's difficult enough with the anniversary of the Aeromexico incident only two weeks away. The Detroit accident only adds to the anxiety."

The Northwest jet crash probably "reopened some old wounds" for survivors of the Aeromexico accident, said Patrick D. O'Connor, a clinical psychologist who treated many residents of the demolished Cerritos neighborhood.

"It can re-traumatize a person," said O'Connor, director of the Los Angeles County-financed Rio Hondo Community Mental Health Center in Cerritos. "Some people may experience nightmares, panic attacks or feel depressed."

Such emotional displays, O'Connor added, are healthy because victims are working through their grief or fears rather than suppressing the emotions, which can lead to problems later.

"It's like a huge dinner," he said. "It takes time to digest it."

About 25 million Americans are afraid to fly, and another 15 million fly only when necessary, according to a 1983 Boeing Co. survey.

Yet flying is safer than many activities, according to the National Transportation Safety Board.

Almost eight times as many people die in a single year while walking than die in passenger jet crashes in a decade.

A jetliner about the size of a Boeing 727 would have to crash without survivors every day, seven days a week, to kill as many people as motor vehicles do in a year, the NTSB reported. In 1974-85, more than 3.3 billion passengers traveled on about 61 million scheduled U.S. flights. In the same period, 1,442 people were killed in airline accidents.

Yet, the specter of the Northwest airlines crash in Detroit can cause the knuckles of millions of people to turn even whiter.

"When you're flying, you're in an environment where other fears and anxieties can surface readily, and an accident can make the condition worse for someone who may already have a fear of flying," said Glen Arnold, director of Newport Beach-based ThAIRapy, an offshoot of his practice dedicated to treating the fear of flying.

One reason why people seem to be more frightened of flying than driving is that it is a relatively new experience for most, Arnold said: "Even though a million people a day are being transported on commercial carriers, flying is relatively new to a majority of people."

There has long been fear of a Detroit-type disaster occuring near John Wayne Airport because of the large number of people who live and work near it. That potential is often cited by foes of airport expansion.

"It's a constant fear," said Arlene Hall, who moved to Santa Ana Heights 23 years ago, when John Wayne Airport had just one runway and jet flights were still a few years away.

"Every time a plane goes over, you're wondering if it is going to be this one. And you look and you can see they're so close. . . . It scares you to death."

Hall's husband, Ed, is a retired fire captain and former commercial pilot who is founder of Concerned Home Owners of Sherwood Estates, a group concerned with the safety of airport activities. Of the possibility of an air disaster in their neighborhood, Hall said, "I don't live in fear, but I know it's bound to happen.

"After the Cerritos thing and after this one (in Detroit), it sort of puts everybody into the closet. They just don't talk about it."

O'Connor, the Cerritos psychologist, said people "are not taking air safety for granted anymore. . . . People who fly or live in flight patterns now watch and listen more, looking for signs of trouble."

The Northwest jet crash also brought back a 13-year-old memory: Shortly before midnight in September, 1974, a single-engine plane crashed into Ed and Joan Hulse's house, which is south of the airport's main runway. The plane crashed into the garage, tore through the den and landed on their son's bed. Fortunately Joe Hulse, then 19, had decided to sleep on the couch in the living room that night. The pilot was killed, but the Hulses and their seven children escaped injury.

Although Hulse now lives in Capistrano Beach, he still owns four houses in Santa Ana Heights and his son, wife and their new baby still live in the area.

"I still kind of worry about them," Hulse said. "It's dangerous living near an airport, although the statistics say it's not. I still say it is."

Times staff writer Patrick Mott contributed to this story.

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