If not for a scheduling conflict, Merritt Bise would have been on a small plane to Laughlin, Nev., last week.
She and some friends -- all in their 70s or 80s -- had arranged the trip as a fund-raising item for a silent auction at Glendale's Church of Religious Science. When nobody bid on it, however, they decided to take the trip themselves in the nine-passenger Cessna piloted by an 89-year-old friend.
At the last minute, Bise, 75, canceled because of a scheduling conflict involving volunteer work she does for the Pasadena Playhouse. Another woman went in her place. Sometime around 12:30 p.m. Wednesday, authorities say, the plane went down in the Mojave Desert, killing all five aboard.
"It makes me wonder what the Lord wants me to do," Bise, of Montrose, said Monday, reflecting on the strange set of circumstances that apparently saved her life.
None of the bodies -- found 7:30 a.m. Thursday about 60 miles east of Needles -- has been positively identified, according to Chip Patterson, a spokesman for the San Bernardino County Sheriff's Department. Because of their conditions, he said, identification "will be done through dental records or fingerprints and may take several weeks."
Bise, however, says she knows at least three of the dead. One, she says, is Bonnie Day, a retired Burbank real estate agent who knew the pilot and arranged the flight. Another is Fran Barisoff, a resident of Leisure World in Seal Beach who was on the flight instead of Bise. And the third, Bise said, is Patricia Wiseman, 76, another Leisure World resident who had been a lifelong friend.
"We went to the same grammar school, became good friends and have been absolutely closer than sisters over the years," Bise said of the woman whom everyone called Auntie Pat.
"She was one who loved every single day of life. She loved to travel, had been everywhere and there wasn't anything she wouldn't try," Bise said. "She's the one who would be in the front seat of every roller coaster. They went to Laughlin for two days to gamble and play and have fun."
On the way home, the plane -- en route from Bullhead City, Ariz., to Van Nuys Airport -- plummeted from 11,000 to 7,200 feet before disappearing from radar.
"There was nothing obvious to indicate what happened," Patterson said. "There was a fire, the wings were off but the fuselage was somewhat intact."
Authorities have identified the plane's owner and possible pilot as Robert S. Brown of Burbank.
The cause of the crash, Patterson said, is under investigation.