Propelling a Vision : When Big One Hits, a Group of Pilots Is Hoping to Fly Into Action. But Talk of Airport Closure Has Clouded That Dream


Michael Trerotola has a vision of what will happen when the Big One hits Southern California: Highways will splinter like toothpicks. Windows will shatter and buildings will collapse. Hospitals will be choked with the critically wounded.

Then a small army of private pilots will converge on Torrance Municipal Airport.

Wearing brilliant yellow jackets, the pilots will scramble into their planes. Some will begin ferrying people with minor injuries to outlying hospitals. Others will take to the air with special ham-radio transmitters, relaying information to emergency workers on the ground.

Suddenly, the airport will become the city's link to the rest of the world.

That vision has propelled Trerotola for the past year, as he and other pilots have worked to organize the Torrance chapter of the Emergency Volunteer Air Corps, or EVAC.

The concept is simple. Private pilots with small planes could form an air transportation network after an earthquake or other disaster. The EVAC program, still in its infancy, is an effort to rally those pilots before disaster strikes.

But Trerotola and his fellow pilots also have another, bleaker vision.

They fear Torrance will close its general aviation airport, the base for 825 aircraft, to mollify neighbors who have long complained about noise and safety issues. The pilots' concerns have grown in the past year as the city has expanded a curfew on nighttime operations, increased fuel surcharges and halted planning for a million-dollar general aviation center.

Relations between pilots and city officials worsened last fall when a pilots group filed a lawsuit attempting to block the city from issuing building permits for new homes on land near the airport. City Council members retorted with talk of closing the airport.

Although the suit was later dropped, pilots say they are uncertain about the airport's future, and some see EVAC as a potential public relations boon.

"It's part of our attempt to make the community realize there's a benefit to the airport," said EVAC member Gary D. Granger of Manhattan Beach, who keeps his single-engine Piper at the Torrance airport.

A program such as EVAC could help cast the pilots in a better light, said Charles W. Lobb, chairman of the city's Disaster Council.

"The feeling in Torrance is that these are white-silk-scarf types who live up in the hills in Palos Verdes and who come down and play with their expensive toys," Lobb said.

"They're trying to correct that image and show that they're responsible, that they're not there just to make holes in the skies on Sunday afternoons."

Some city officials are viewing EVAC cautiously.

"You still have the same issues out there in terms of noise and compatibility," Councilman Timothy Mock said. "It's nice to have the EVAC program (but) we still have all the other issues."

"I think the concept is great," Torrance Airport Manager John Cagaanan said. "What they need to do is clearly define what their goal is and continue to work with the organizations that are connected to the disaster area."

And Terese Condon, the city's disaster preparedness analyst, says it is too early to say exactly what role EVAC would play in city disaster planning.

Sponsored by the Torrance Airport Boosters Assn., the local group is one of five chapters of EVAC, a fledgling network founded in 1987 in Santa Monica. There also are two chapters in Orange County and one in Ventura County.

The Torrance group now has nearly 60 members, with 40 planes among them, said Trerotola, a longtime private pilot who lives in Palos Verdes Estates and is chairman of the Torrance EVAC. In time, he hopes to enlist 100 planes.

The Torrance group has less than $2,000 in assets, raised primarily through one-time membership dues of $25.

Trerotola regularly attends city Disaster Council meetings. He would like the city to donate a room at the airport for his group to store supplies and plan for a disaster. So far, the city has not responded.

Torrance EVAC pilots point to the program in Santa Monica as a model. There, EVAC pilots took part in the city's May 24 earthquake planning exercise, "Seismos 1990."

"They're a very organized group, from what I've seen," said Laura Hernandez, emergency services coordinator with the Santa Monica Police Department. The city is discussing a formal agreement for using EVAC in its emergency plan, Hernandez said.

Orange County officials are studying how EVAC would mesh with the county's emergency response efforts, said Fausto L. Reyes, manager of the emergency management division of the Orange County Fire Department.

In Torrance, the pilots' group has its critics.

Joseph Arciuch, a board member of the Southwood Riviera Homeowners Assn., said he wonders why the pilots began publicizing EVAC soon after the City Council raised the possibility of closing the airport.

"If they want to help, they should work within the system," Arciuch said. "We'd have less publicity and more activity."

Donald Caprio, a longtime member of Civil Air Patrol Squadron 129, voiced a similar view: "Maybe they feel they want to do something in the case of a disaster? That's fine. They can join the organization that does it."

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