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Survivors Of Christmastime Crash Still Trying To Cope

December 21, 1986

CONCORD, Calif. (AP) _ The decorations, the carols, the shopping and other activity of the Christmas season bring painful memories to those who survived last year’s crash of a private plane through the roof of a shopping mall.

″Every Christmas is going to remind you of it one way or the other,″ said Garry Lodge, 31. ″You have kids who can’t even think of Santa Claus without thinking of fire. That’s what my daughter thinks of.″

Lodge, his wife and two daughters were waiting in line at the Sunvalley Mall for the girls to visit with Santa last Dec. 23 when a twin-engine plane burst through the roof, raining flaming fuel and debris on shoppers.

Seven people died, including three aboard the plane, and more than 70 were injured. The plane was trying to land in fog at nearby Buchanan Field, about 35 miles east of San Francisco.

Lodge, a truck driver from West Pittsburg, suffered third-degree burns on his hands and still wears protective gloves. His wife and daughters also were injured.

His older daughter, Christie, now 4, still has nightmares about the flames and the noise. Jets flying overhead or a backfiring car are enough to start the tears and the fear, he said.

″Everybody in the family has suffered,″ he said. ″You try to forget it if you can, but you really can’t.″

Such reactions are common among survivors of the fiery crash, said counselor Clay Foreman, who compared the psychological problems to post- traumatic stress syndrome suffered by Vietnam veterans and others who witness catastrophe.

The reaction among the Sunvalley Mall crash survivors has an extra edge because of its association with Christmas.

″It couldn’t be any more poignant, for an anniversary reaction especially,″ Foreman said. ″The holiday spirit, the carols playing, all the decorations, all the joy that was prevalent in the mall. Even the non- Christians, even the people who had been in war zones, were completely devastated by this.″

Some of the survivors have nightmares, hallucinations, severe startle reactions and problems relating to others. Many have delayed buying Christmas gifts or have avoided the mall since the accident, Foreman said.

Foreman, who works for Contra Costa County, said many of those he has counseled suffered a syndrome called survivor guilt. They felt they could have done more to help those who died or were injured, even though they exerted superhuman effort.

Foreman told of one man who saved a 9-year-old girl’s life by wrapping her in his coat to extinguish flames.

″People who witnessed it said they couldn’t believe anybody moved that quickly,″ he said. ″(But) he’s still bothered″ that he didn’t get there faster.

Gary Primavera, a Concord police detective who saw the crash and helped rescue the injured, said he underwent counseling for three months.

″I had to deal with the horror and the guilt of not being able to do enough,″ he said. ″I carried out a child who was burned so badly I couldn’t recognize if it was a boy or a girl or black or white. It looked like a doll, just these big eyes.″

There are constant reminders. Many of the injured still are undergoing slow, painful burn treatments. Most also are involved in lawsuits seeking damages from the mall, the city, the pilot’s estate and other defendants.

Counseling can help - especially group therapy with other survivors - but many don’t seek such aid because they think it’s a sign of weakness, of being unable to cope with the horror, Foreman said.

″I would expect some people 40 years from now to still have reactions, to still have ongoing lifestyle patterns that were started by this,″ he said.

Primavera asked to be assigned to the mall again this Christmas so he could overcome his uneasiness. He said his first stroll through the stores ″was the longest walk of my career.″

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