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Shock of Crash Deeply Felt in Westminster

Times Staff Writer

An American flag flew at half staff Thursday outside the Westminster home of Jerry Avritt.

Inside, Judy Avritt quietly studied her hands as she sat on a sofa and talked about the sudden, horrifying death on Wednesday of her husband, the flight engineer aboard the Pan American 747 that exploded over Scotland.

Sitting in front of a flickering television set, Avritt said the fiery scenes from repeated new reports of the crash had convinced her that the tragedy was not just a nightmare.

“I guess we’re still pretty much in shock,” she said. “It takes a while for the shock to wear off. But I’ve accepted it. At first I had some hope, but then after I watched it on TV, I could see that nobody could survive it.”

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The flight engineer was one of at least two Orange County victims of the fiery crash. Pan Am flight attendant Jocelyn Reina, 26, formerly of La Palma and now of Middlesex, England, was also aboard the ill-fated jet. Her parents, who live in La Palma, flew immediately to England, according to a friend of the family.

In Avritt’s Westminster neighborhood, neighbors clustered outside his two-story home, privately conversing about the tragedy. Reporters, some with TV cameras, paced the sidewalks along the 14000 block of Bexley Street.

Jerry Avritt, 46, worked out of New York City, flying back and forth across the Atlantic Ocean on European flights of Pan Am, and commuting home to Los Angeles International Airport and then to Westminster, his wife said. He had lived at the home on Bexley Street for 16 years.

“He was supposed to come home tonight (Thursday night) from New York,” Judy Avritt said, as her children, Marcus, 16, and Angela, 15, sat nearby.

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She quickly looked around the house, which was brightly decorated for Christmas. A Nativity scene stood on a large coffee table.

Avritt said there was a reason for the American flag outside.

“Jerry had been in the Air Force, and he really loved it,” she said. “He served four years right after graduating from high school in Oceanside in 1960. He was in SAC (Strategic Air Command). The Air Force is where he learned how to work on jet engines and where he became involved with airplanes. He loved working with airplanes.”

Jerry Avritt “was proud of having been in the Air Force,” she said. “He always said he still had his old Air Force socks, that they just don’t make them like that anymore.”

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Born in Lebanon, Ky., a town near Louisville, Avritt came to California when he was about 12, she said. “I met him when I was living in Inglewood. He was going to Northrop Institute then; it was after he had gotten out of the Air Force. He was taking courses so he could work with the airlines.”

That, she said, “would be 20 years this coming June,” she said. “That’s how long we’ve been married.”

A neighbor, Judy Kappen, sat close to Judy Avritt, trying to comfort her and help her with the endless phone calls and flurries of visits from news media.

“Jerry was a lot of fun,” Kappen said. “He was about 6 feet tall, and he went walking every day because he wanted to stay in good physical condition. He was always very helpful; whenever anybody in the neighborhood needed mechanical help, he was there. He was knowledgeable about a lot of things, especially mechanical things.”

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Judy Avritt said her husband “really had such a good sense of humor. And he liked to be knowledgeable about as many things as he could. He read a lot; he went to the Westminster Library so often that he knew everyone there by their first names. The last book he was reading was on Chinese art. We had bought a Chinese vase at an auction, and Jerry wanted to learn more about Chinese art.”

Avritt was hired by National Airlines in 1967 and then went with Pan American when the two airlines merged. He had just transferred to the jumbo-jet 747s about a year ago, she said. “When he went on the 747s, that’s when he started making the European flights. Before that, he had mostly been flying to South America.”

‘Real, Well-Rounded Person’

Riffling through some family photos, Judy Avritt smiled as she found one of her husband on a fishing trip to New Zealand. The photo showed a grinning Jerry dressed in a funny-looking fisherman’s hat, proudly displaying a very big fish.

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“He was just a real, well-rounded person,” she said.

Kappen tried to summarize the situation for both the Avritt family and the Bexley Street neighborhood.

“Our reaction is shock; we just can’t believe it,” Kappen said. “There’s this awful situation of not knowing whether this crash happened because of a mechanical thing or because of a terrorist. And there is anger, I will tell you, in this neighborhood if it was caused by a terrorist.

“And there is sadness, because we’ve all lost a friend.”

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