Friday, August 18, 2006

Another Plane Crash

Steven Tur

"His nose was up, but he was coming down. When I saw that, I said, 'he's in trouble.'" Bill Fulco, crash witness, 1989

"The engine was still running, but just as I lost sight of the plane, there was a deadly silence. So I knew it was going down." Sonya, Beebe, crash witness, 1989

I've been coming to you sporadically from LA this week. I'm here helping my sister Judy organize her husband Bob's memorial service. On Monday I shared some details of his fatal plane crash last month.

Those who fly small planes, especially vintage ones, are at high risk for accidental death. No matter how careful their planning and maintenance, things can go wrong with older planes.

Bob and Judy, both licensed pilots and members of a group of vintage airplane enthusiasts survived another crash together in 1989. The irony isn't lost on any of us these days.

They took off from Santa Monica airport on a beautiful Labor Day weekend, in a friend's World War II P-51 Mustang. It was a two-seater, one behind the other. My brother-in-law was at the controls, my sister co-piloting in the rear seat.

Her then 28-year-old son watched from the ground as he'd done countless times, a little annoyed that day because he'd wanted to go in her place.

They lifted off, began to climb into the sky and suddenly, like a bolt out of the blue, an actual bolt flew off the engine and into the propeller. The plane spiraled out of control as my brother-in-law fought valiantly to keep it aloft.

Horribly, gravity prevailed. The plane rolled, rolled again, and crashed upside down on top of a house near the airport.

Dozens of airport regulars rushed to the scene, including my nephew. An airport fire truck arrived first. And stopped the rescuers in their tracks, making them stand helplessly by as the crippled plane lay smoking, belly up on top of the house. Why? A large, deadly spill of gasoline was pooling around the perimeter.

The danger was enormous, the risk huge. The house, the plane and it's injured--dead?--occupants and passengers were surrounded by a virtual moat of petrol that could explode into a fireball at any moment.

As often happens in such situations, ordinary heroes rise to the occasion. A fellow pilot--a Vietnam veteran--waded through the foam being sprayed by the fire engine and climbed onto the plane. My nephew, galvanized by fear and desperation, followed. Together they managed to pry open part of the canopy.

Can any of us imagine watching our mother's plane crash, then crawling onto the burning plane to attempt a rescue, hoping against hope it's not instead a grisly recovery? They say mothers will do anything to save their children. I'm here to tell you, children can do the same for their mothers.

Miraculously, both my sister and her husband--though badly bruised and battered--were alive.

The two elderly sisters who lived in the house were thankfully, blessedly, not at home -- they were out walking their dog.

Seventeen years have passed. Memory fades. Wounds heal. Life goes on. Until it doesn't.

More irony ... back then I flew out to LA from Philly to help. That's when I met Bob for the first time. A story I'll be telling at his memorial service tomorrow. Because this time, I flew out to say good bye.



Anonymous Anonymous said...

Wow, great writing, compelling story. It should have a lot of comments.

11:56 PM  

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