In Retrospect / 1987 : An Earth-Shaking Event Shares Headlines With Jet Crash, Pope

Times Staff Writer

In some ways, 1987 was a classic Southern California disaster story, with a big (but not The Big) earthquake striking Whittier, motorists shooting at motorists on the freeways, near-collisions in the skies, beaches closed because of sewage spills and studies pegging the the air as, still, the worst in the nation.

Occasionally, the crises even seemed to blend into one another, as when a Cessna pilot reported looking down the barrel of a gun brandished by the pilot of a close-passing plane off the coast.

The single most catastrophic event was the PSA flight from Los Angeles that crashed in San Luis Obispo County, killing all 43 aboard, after a passenger apparently shot both pilots.

But 1987 was also a year of hope for hundreds of thousands of illegal aliens who applied for citizenship under a federal amnesty program.


And, for many, 1987 would be remembered as the first ever to bring a Pope to Los Angeles.

Hollywood crept into the news stories too, as movies begat trials and vice versa. Director John Landis and four associates were found not guilty of involuntary manslaughter in the deaths of three actors, including two children, on the set of “Twilight Zone--The Movie.” Joe Hunt, leader of the so-called “Billionaire Boys Club” (later the name of the television movie), was found guilty of murdering con man Ron Levin.

And the on-the-air holdup of a KNBC newsroom by a man pointing a realistic-looking gun at consumer reporter David Horowitz spurred the passage of legislation outlawing such toys in several cities.

With gang and drug wars raging, authorities counted more than 1,125 slayings in the city and county.


The acquired immune deficiency syndrome toll continued to mount. Since the epidemic started, 4,069 cases--and 2,542 deaths--were reported in Los Angeles County through last month. The Board of Supervisors agreed to seek ways to step up hospice and home care for AIDS victims.

Meanwhile, the homeless were kept preoccupied with the chore of getting through each day. In June, on a flat, dusty, 12-acre RTD site downtown, the City of Los Angeles set up an “urban campground” that housed up to 600 people a night. But it closed four months later so that the site could be turned into a Metro Rail maintenance yard.

As authorities sought to find additional housing, an unseasonably cold December caused further hardships. Some of the major local disaster stories were:

The Whittier Quake


KNBC-TV anchorman Kent Shocknek, who was on the air at 7:42 a.m. on Oct. 1 when the rocking and rolling began, took cover under his desk and said at one point: “This might have been the Big One.”

It wasn’t. The temblor’s 5.9 reading was less than that of the 6.5 Sylmar quake, but it was big enough. The Whittier-centered quake killed three people and caused more than $200 million in damage. Thirty-thousand families and businesses asked for government assistance afterward. And just when nerves were unfraying, a 5.3 aftershock struck three days later.

Freeway Shootings

Sparked in part by increasing traffic volume and roadway construction that combined to jam up traffic as never before, the bizarre outbreak probably destroyed forever the old notion of the freeways as a place to relax and reflect--"the two calmest and most rewarding hours of (motorists’) daily lives,” as author Reyner Banham wrote in 1971. Between mid-June and September, more than 50 incidents of violence, and at least five deaths, were reported in Southern California.


Crowded Skies

With air traffic at Los Angeles International Airport up 20%, there was a threefold increase in aircraft near-collisions. President Reagan’s helicopter had a close brush with a private plane as he was heading to his ranch near Santa Barbara. Emergency restrictions were clamped on the airspace around the airport.

PSA Jet Crash

“A female (gave) a one-word warning to the captain,” an FBI report later said. The warning apparently came as fired airline employee David A. Burke shot his ex-boss and was about to open fire in the cockpit.


The fact that Burke bypassed normal screening procedures and smuggled a gun aboard by showing a USAir badge raised new doubts about airport security checkpoints, especially after a study found that local airport officials could not account for 16% of 38,000 badges.

As a result of the Burke incident, airline personnel were later ordered to submit to the same checks as passengers. However, it was also revealed that in a 1986 nationwide study, 20% of the weapons placed in carry-on baggage were undetected at security checkpoints.

Polluted Beaches

Whether it was a leaking Los Angeles sewage system, as county officials claimed, or contaminated storm drain runoff, as Mayor Tom Bradley claimed, more than 50 miles of Los Angeles County coastline, from Malibu to Long Beach, was declared off limits in November.


Four major spills of the city’s raw sewage closed down stretches of the coast earlier in the year, prompting an investigation by state authorities. Bradley, acknowledging that the city’s sewers were near the breaking point, proposed emergency limits on residential and industrial water use to ease demand on the system by reducing the flow of waste water.

Smog Hangs On

Southern California remained the smoggiest area in the nation, failing to meet standards for ozone 148 days out of the year. Nonetheless, some saw hope in the formation of a mandatory ride-sharing program by the Air Quality Management District that would affect 8,000 local businesses employing 40% of the 3.5 million daily commuters.

The news wasn’t all bleak, of course. It only seemed that way sometimes.


On the more uplifting side, there were these developments:

Amnesty Launched

Cinco de Mayo, a Mexican holiday celebrating the defeat of an invading French army in 1862, became a different kind of anniversary in 1987, the first day of amnesty in the United States for many illegal aliens, who were given a year to apply to become legal residents.

For these indocumentados , it meant an end to the daily fear of being discovered by their bosses or the police or government officials. While there was some criticism of the government’s demanding documentation requirements, more than 500,000 Californians had applied by year’s end. And there was a drop in arrests of illegal alien workers at the border.


“This is not just some ceremony,” said an El Salvadoran who, after nine years here, had risen to a $25-per-hour data programming job. “This is real life. I need that card.”

Pope Pays Visit

Like the arrival of the Olympic Games in 1984, the two-day visit of Pope John Paul II to Los Angeles in September served as a kind of holiday for the city. (Even for drivers--as during the Olympics, traffic was lighter, not heavier, than usual.)

On his 7.2-mile motorcade through downtown and during his appearances at St. Vibiana’s Cathedral, Universal Amphitheater, the Registry Hotel near Universal Studios, the Coliseum and Immaculate Conception School, the Pope was met with mostly smiling faces. And an edited-for-the-occasion HOLYWOOD sign.


“It’s like liquor for some,” said one bystander, warehouseman Raul Diaz de Leon, 53. “The more you drink, the drunker you get. I think we are drunk on the Pope.”

While there were muted protests over the Pope’s firm support of traditional church teachings, the biggest complaint of bystanders was that the Popemobile seemed to whiz by faster than the advertised 9-12 m.p.h.

World Champions

The Lakers finally defeated their long-time nemesis, the Boston Celtics, and celebrated by fast-breaking through downtown Los Angeles in a victory parade. The Raiders, meanwhile, said they were moving to a gravel pit in Irwindale, an announcement that lost shock value as the team’s won-lost record crumbled to 5-10.