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Planes Collide at LAX; 12 Die : 24 Injured in Runway Crash; 21 Unaccounted For : Disaster: USAir jetliner with 89 aboard burns with commuter craft stuck underneath. The FBI says there is no evidence of terrorism.

TIMES STAFF WRITERS

A USAir jetliner landing at Los Angeles International Airport collided on the ground with a a SkyWest commuter plane Friday night, creating a fiery tangle of wreckage. At least 12 people were killed, 24 were injured and 21 were missing, officials said.

The USAir Boeing 737--carrying 83 passengers and a crew of six--veered across a taxiway after the collision, apparently dragging the smaller plane beneath it, and slammed into an abandoned airport building, witnesses said.

The mangled wreckage of the smaller, twin-engine Fairchild Metroliner III with two pilots and 10 passengers aboard ended up beneath the burning fuselage of the USAir’s Flight 1493.

A SkyWest spokesman said there were no survivors on the commuter plane.

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Federal aviation officials said it was too early to determine how the accident occurred and precisely where on the ground the two planes collided.

Said SkyWest official Mikeil Callahan: “The information I have is that the USAir plane landed on top of the SkyWest plane.”

An airport employee told reporters it appeared the commuter plane taxied into the jetliner’s path.

The FBI said there was no evidence of terrorism.

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As passengers swarmed from the jetliner, at least a dozen fire engines sped to the crash site on the north side of the airport’s passenger terminals. Ambulances rushed the injured to nearby hospitals. Ten were reported to have suffered moderate to severe injuries, with another 14 suffering lesser injuries.

“It’s amazing anybody is alive,” said Los Angeles Police Officer Ken Brady, who was at the crash site. “It was a pretty grisly scene. It’s amazing anybody walked away.”

Hours later, several bodies remained pinned in the tangle of wreckage or scattered on the airport Tarmac. Five hours after the crash, relatives of as many as 10 USAir passengers were still awaiting word at the airport on their missing kin. Salvage crews were held back by leaking fuel, but they intended to explore the wreckage today.

One witness said the jetliner’s landing gear was not lowered as the big plane approached the airport. But USAir contradicted that report, saying there was no initial information that anything was amiss. Fire officials said a survey of the wreckage showed the landing gear was down.

Federal Aviation Administration officials said the pilot of the jetliner did not report any unusual circumstances before the landing. Surviving passengers of the Boeing 737 said the collision occurred without warning after an apparently normal touchdown.

The planes collided at nightfall, shortly after 6 p.m. Officials said visibility and weather conditions were good.

Orange flames boiled up from the fuselage and a huge column of smoke towered over the airport. Spotlights and the lights from police, fire and other rescue vehicles silhouetted the smoldering wreckage against the darkened sky.

“It was a sight beyond belief,” said Brett Lyles, 23, of San Francisco, who arrived on another USAir flight that taxied within 300 yards of the wreckage. “People on the flight were dumbfounded.”

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USAir officials said Flight 1493 had originated in Syracuse, N.Y. After stops in Washington, D.C., and Columbus, Ohio, the flight continued to Los Angeles, reaching LAX slightly ahead of its scheduled 6:11 p.m. arrival.

SkyWest said its Flight 5569 was preparing to take off for Palmdale when the accident occurred.

Dispatcher Roger Boatright told KNX Radio that he saw the jetliner approaching the airport as he watched from his office at the Avis Rent-a-Car on Airport Boulevard, about 600 yards from the crash site.

“The plane came in without its landing gear,” Boatright said. “I saw it fly over the building. Me and my boss talked about it not having its landing gear down.

“There was like a bright flash and we saw smoke,” he said. “It was like a joke between me and my boss--not putting its landing gear down. Most planes have their landing gear down when they get to this point.

“I didn’t see it touch the ground. I saw a bright flash and that was it.”

On the other hand, Dr. Chul Hong, 62, a physician from Canton, Ohio, who was seated in the seventh row of the USAir flight, said the plane apparently made a smooth, normal landing. Then about 10 to 30 seconds later, he heard an explosion.

There were “a few bumps, then all of a sudden I hear a big noise,” he said. “I thought the tire was exploding . . .

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“The row ahead of us just disappeared,” said Laurel Bravo, a passenger from Cleveland who was seated in the fourth row. “The seats all went flying downward. . . . I thought at first it was a rough landing. But then I really thought I was going to die.”

Hong said a large crowd gathered in the front of the passenger cabin during the rush to get out of the burning plane. He said he looked back, spotted an emergency door three seats behind him, ran out the door and didn’t stop until he was about 100 yards from the plane.

“I got a rebirth,” he said. “God saved me.”

The 737 ended up against a wall of a former fire station. The building is unoccupied.

The nose of the jetliner appeared to be severely damaged, apparently from the collision. There was a large hole in the top of the fuselage, and the tail section of the plane appeared to be partially torn away.

Glen Bergstrom, 25, was in his Westchester apartment when “the room just lit up.” He ran to a window that affords a sweeping view of the airport and through a telescope saw “a wall of fire for a huge distance, maybe 15 feet high.”

Bergstrom said he saw three people flee the USAir plane, two sliding down and emergency chute, another jumping from the airplane to the ground. He could see that the plane’s nose was on the ground and its tail was still up on its landing gear.

“The front door was shut,” Bergstrom said. “But I could see an orangeish, reddish glow through the (passenger) windows and the cockpit window.”

Bob Zullinger, a local resident, said he was playing golf with friends on the nearby Westchester course when “we heard an initial bang, spun around and there was a ball for fire. Then this pretty much caromed down the runway, came to a stop. And then there was another bang.”

Witness saw dozens of passengers exit the airliner safely. Firefighters simultaneously worked to extinguish flames at the rear of the airliner while aiding survivors.

Los Angeles International has four parallel runways, two on the north side of the passenger terminals and two to the south. The crash occurred on Runway 24 Left, the runway on the north side that is closest to the passenger terminals.

In the aftermath of the crash, the FAA closed both north runways, and all traffic was shifted to the two south runways.

The last serious accident involving a USAir jetliner occurred in September, 1989, when a Boeing 737 crashed on takeoff at New York’s La Guardia Airport. Two of the 57 passengers aboard were killed when the pilot’s attempt to abort the takeoff failed and the jet skidded off the end of the runway into the East River.

USAir ranked 11th among the 49 major airlines in safety with four accidents between 1969 and 1988, according to a Conde Nast Traveler survey published last year. The airline had a total of four crashes out of 6.4 million flights in that time.

At Harbor UCLA Medical Center in Torrance, one of the hospitals where Friday night’s victims were taken, emergency room physician Diane Birnbaumer said a survivor from the rear of the plane described the landing as routine--at first.

“All he knew was that he felt a big bump, he felt a thud,” she said. The survivor, a white male in his late 20s, was taken to the hospital in a helicopter and was suffering from smoke inhalation.

” . . . He’s too shook up to know how he got out of the plane.”

Gretchen Imig, 25, from Lakewood, was visiting friends in an apartment building near the airport. She was watching television when suddenly saw a big burst of light. Running to a window, she saw the plane sliding rapidly down the runway.

“There were flames coming out of the cockpit and flames coming out ot the tail,” she said. “Half the runway was streaked with flames that kept burning.”

Imig then watched six or more people scoot down an emergency chute from the plane.

Three bodies covered with yellow tarps were placed on the ground east of the wreckage.

At Palmdale Regional Airport, 60 miles northeast of Los Angeles, a group waited quietly for information about the Skywest flight.

Initially, the black, wooden flight board said only that Flight 5569 had been delayed. It wasn’t until shortly after 9 p.m. that SkyWest officials confirmed for the first time that the flight that had crashed.

A moment later, a young woman began to cry softly.

Four hours after the SkyWest flight was scheduled to arrive at the Palmdale airport, anxious relatives and friends continued to wait.

Some wept, others contemplated traveling to the airport, several made repeated trips to the bathroom. Airline officials had confirmed the flight crashed, but no other details were being released. Who was on the flight? Are there survivors?

Kulam Kulasingam of Lancaster waited to pick up the daughter of friends who were out of town.

“I’ve got to find out if she’s on the flight,” he said.

It was sometime after midnight that the airline announced all aboard had perished.

Times staff writers in Los Angeles contributing to the crash stories: John Chandler, Richard Lee Colvin, Cathleen Decker, Sam Enriquez, Paul Feldman, Andrea Ford, Jane Fritsch, Michele Fuetsch, Larry Gordon, Scott Harris, Nieson Himmel, Charisse Jones, Greg Krikorian, John H. Lee, Victor Merina, John L. Mitchell, Janet Rae-Dupree, Kenneth Reich, Deborah Schoch, Robert Steinbrook, Vicki Torres, Irene Wielawski, Tracy Wilkinson, Elaine Woo. In San Francisco: Dan Morain. In Washington: Sam Fulwood.


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