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L.A. Affairs: I survived a plane crash when I was 15. Now I know why

An illustration of an eye with an airplane window standing in as the pupil.
I finally had an answer to the question that had haunted me.
(Sol Cotti / For The Times)

“Why do you think you were the only survivor?”

That’s a question I’ve heard many times over the years since I was in an airplane that crashed, killing everyone else aboard.

I was a typical 15-year-old growing up in the San Gabriel Valley. A friend and neighbor who had a pilot’s license invited me and two others for a ride one day. Feb. 12, 1978. We flew out of El Monte Airport to Apple Valley, had lunch, and were on the way back when we hit a storm. The pilot became disoriented and began flying too low. He was only 19 and hadn’t had much experience flying in weather like that. We clipped a tree and came crashing into a snowbank west of the Cajon Pass. It was nearly a day of frigid cold before I was rescued. I was in intensive care for weeks with severe frostbite, a fractured leg and hip injuries. The doctors discussed with my parents the possibility of amputations.

I didn’t know much about life yet, and I sure didn’t have any idea why I’d been the sole survivor.

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A therapist explained that violent traumas can make all your inner emotions flare. All your conflicts, even those years old and long buried. And so I confessed it all. All my struggles. And this time, with the therapist’s help, I recognized that I was a woman.

I worked hard to overcome my injuries and ended up being a pretty good baseball and basketball player at Temple City High School. So after a short three years (actually not so short after all the rehab and physical therapy), I was 18 and a baseball player at a summer team party to which one of my teammates had brought his girlfriend. And she brought a 17-year-old friend with her, Laura.

I thought Laura was the sweetest, nicest, most beautiful girl I had ever seen. We became friends. She happened to work at a sunglasses store at the Santa Anita mall. So that may explain why I visited the mall more and more that summer. We eventually had a few dates. For one date, we went to a concert in L.A. to see John Waite and Scandal. They became my favorite musical acts, and I’m sure it had to do with the memories of being with Laura that night.

By fall that year, real life had intruded. We were both busy with life after high school. She began working and was living at home in Arcadia. I moved about an hour away to Huntington Beach. I had just started classes at Cal State Long Beach and had a night job at a gym in Seal Beach. Smartphones and email weren’t around yet. There was never a breakup. We just kind of drifted apart.

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After college graduation, I had begun teaching and coaching basketball and baseball at a high school in Irvine when I met the co-owner and director of an international sports exchange program. They arranged to send baseball players all over the world on adventures related to their sport. I was invited to coach a group of young players and accompany them to Australia and New Zealand for more coaching and tournaments. I couldn’t believe my luck. It didn’t even sound real. Needless to say, I joined up and had some of the greatest adventures you could imagine. I was scared to death to fly. But I figured that if I was going to go anywhere in the world, I’d have to fly. (It helped that there were free alcoholic beverages on international flights in those days.) It was worth it, though.

I visited Australia, New Zealand and numerous islands in the Pacific, including Tahiti, Fiji and Hawaii.

It all led to a new opportunity for adventure: I was invited by a local baseball club in Australia to return Down Under and run its growing baseball organization for a stint. All expenses paid. I was only substitute teaching at the time, with no real connections or commitments, so I was all in. I bought my plane ticket, told my landlord I would be leaving, and made arrangements for my parents to take care of my two Siberian huskies, Thor and Zeus, while I was gone.

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I was determined to make 2020 my year to break out of my dating rut. But the pandemic would shut down even the possibility of dating in a way that I never could have imagined.

One of my buddies happened to mention that he had run into someone who said she knew me and had dated me briefly, and wanted to get in touch with me. He couldn’t remember her name, though.

My reaction? “Who cares! I’m going to Australia!”

I ran into him again a few weeks later. He said the same woman had asked about me again. He began searching his memory for her name. I told him I still didn’t care, that I’d never met anyone I’d had a special feeling for or really cared that much about. Well, except for that one girl back in high school ...

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“Laura!” he said, finally remembering. Her name was Laura.

My jaw dropped.

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I called my mom and asked her if she still had our old phone book in the kitchen. She did. I asked her to look under the Ks, for Laura’s last name. Nothing there. Then, she looked under the Ls.

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And she recited the number she’d written there so many years ago under “Laura.”

Would the number still work? Did she still live there at her mom’s house? Amazingly, she answered. We talked and talked and talked. I asked if I could visit her that evening. I gladly made the hour-plus drive from Huntington Beach to Arcadia. I took my huskies with me for moral support. I stayed until 10 p.m., just talking on her porch, until it was finally time to drive back to the beach.

I couldn’t sleep that night. So I drove back to Arcadia before dawn the next morning and left flowers on her porch, and then drove back to Huntington Beach yet again for my substitute teaching job that day.

Within a week, I had canceled my flight to Australia.

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Within five months, on Valentine’s Day weekend (and the anniversary date of my plane crash), I paid to have an airplane fly over Huntington Beach towing a banner that said, “Laura, will you marry me? Love, Jim.”

You see, I finally had my answer to why I survived.

The author has been a public high school teacher for the last 33 years across Southern California, spending the majority of his career in the Desert Sands Unified School District in the Coachella Valley. He is currently writing a book about his airplane crash and how life has unfolded since. He and Laura have three children and have been married 30 years.

L.A. Affairs chronicles the search for romantic love in all its glorious expressions in the L.A. area, and we want to hear your true story. We pay $300 for a published essay. Email LAAffairs@latimes.com. You can find submission guidelines here.


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