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Rescue Crews Rummage After Los Angeles Airport’s Worst Disaster

September 1, 1986

CERRITOS, Calif. (AP) _ Emergency crews picked through burned-out houses today, searching for bodies and people missing after an Aeromexico jetliner and a small plane collided and smashed into a suburban neighborhood, killing at least 67 people.

Sunday’s crash killed 58 passengers and six crew members on the Aeromexico DC-9, and three people in a single-engine Piper PA-28.

At least 27 of the passengers were Americans, a U.S. Embassy official in Mexico City said today. The official, who spoke on condition his name not be used, said two had boarded the jet at Tijuana and the rest boarded at the Baja California resort of Loreto.

At least 10 people who were on the ground when the planes crashed 20 miles southeast of Los Angeles International Airport were missing, sheriff’s and coroner’s officials said today. They said earlier reports that three Cerritos residents had died were unconfirmed and unofficial speculation.

Los Angeles County sheriff’s Deputy Roxanna Schuchman had said three residents were killed, and county Fire Department spokesman Rob Smith said that left at least seven neighborhood residents missing.

″There’s no confirmed on the ground. It’s just too much of a mess,″ coroner’s spokesman Greg Colvett said after daybreak today.

Deputy Laura Moak said the earlier report of the three deaths was premature, and that ″information given to us later reveals there is no way to confirm that at this time. Anything prior to that was in error.″

The search for bodies continued in a six- by eight-block section of an upper-middle-class neighborhood where streets, homes and trees were littered with steel, flesh, charred cars, luggage and ashes.

″It’s going to be extremely difficult to determine if there were any deaths in the homes,″ Los Angeles County sheriff’s spokesman Dave Tellez said early today. ″The problem is that it’s a three-day weekend and some of these people might have been away.... There are still body parts in some of the homes; we just don’t know if they are residents, visitors or people from the aircraft.″

The fiery rain of wreckage set 20 homes ablaze, destroying nine of them. Firefighters went through the homes room by room, looking for bodies and making sure no survivors were trapped inside.

About 25 to 30 families displaced by the crash were sent by the Red Cross to hotels or went to stay with relatives.

″We are staying with these people ... we have counselors with them ... seeing them through the psychological trauma,″ said Red Cross spokesman Ralph Wright.

National Transportation Safety Board member John Lauber, who is in charge of investigating the crash, said he didn’t have enough information to comment on possible causes.

The jet’s cockpit voice recorder was recovered, damaged but intact, from the tail section, said Gary Mucho, chief of the NTSB’s Los Angeles field office.

A preliminary investigation showed the jet was being switched from the Coast Control, an air-traffic-control facility in El Toro, to Los Angeles approach control, Mucho said.

Witnesses said they saw the smaller plane crash into the tail section of the jetliner. Though there was no exact nationality breakdown available, the passengers were described by Aeromexico officials as a mixture of Mexico nationals and U.S. tourists, including at least one infant and seven children.

It was the worst air disaster in the history of the Los Angeles airport and the worst U.S. air crash since 137 people were killed Aug. 2, 1985, when a Delta Airlines L-1011 TriStar bound from Fort Lauderdale, Fla., to Los Angeles crashed on landing at Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport.

It was also the second major accident of a Mexican commercial airliner this year.

The Federal Aviation Administration said the smaller craft was flying under visual flight rules and was not under direct radio control when the planes collided.

The congested airspace over Southern California, where uncontrolled, low- speed private planes mingle with high-speed commercial jetliners, has long been considered a major problem area, according to John Galipault, director of the Aviation Safety Institute in Worthington, Ohio.

Ten neighborhood residents suffered minor injuries, said sheriff’s spokesman Tellez. Five firefighters and a sheriff’s deputy were treated at hospitals for minor injuries.

Two men were arrested in the 10-block-square cordoned-off area, one apparently a souvenir hunter and the other accused of looting, police said.

Randy Economy, who lives in the neighborhood, said he tried to help neighbors.

″The heat was so intense - the stench was just a horrible smell,″ he said. ″We got to the end of the street and there was just flames.″ They helped people trying to hose their roofs. When asked if he tried to enter any homes, he said: ″We couldn’t get close to them ... we heard screams.″

At the airport, friends and relatives were ushered into a private area and told about the crash.

Everyone was ″crying and waiting for word,″ said Garciela Natividad of Los Angeles.

″We were praying that a car had broken down or a taxi was late or a seat was already filled ... that the people we love so much had missed that plane,″ said Eduardo Juarez, who was waiting to pick up his daughter-in-law.

The Piper crashed in an empty schoolyard. Witnesses said they saw the bodies of a man, woman and child in the wreckage.

The Aeromexico flight originated in Mexico City and stopped at Guadalajara, Loreto and Tijuana in Baja California before it headed for Los Angeles. It was on final approach when the crash occurred.

Aeromexico released a passenger list in Mexico City late Sunday night after contacting relatives of those on board.

NTSB spokesman Jeff Rich said the smaller aircraft took off from Torrance Airport around 11 a.m. and was bound for Big Bear Lake, 90 miles northeast of downtown Los Angeles.

The planes collided at between 6,200 and 7,000 feet, but aviation officials said they had not determined which plane was in or out of position.

Aeromexico station manager Armando Charles in Los Angeles said the jet’s pilot had talked to company officials on the ground about five minutes before the crash and gave no indication anything was wrong.

California Highway Patrol Officer Lyle Whitten said the smaller airplane looked like a toy as it fluttered down. ″For just a moment,″ Whitten said, ″I couldn’t believe it was a real airplane. But then it hit the ground and you could see it wasn’t a toy, and then for a moment I just wanted to cry.″

Aeromexico is owned by the Mexican government, and Sunday’s crash was the second involving a national airline in five months.

On March 31, a Mexicana airlines Boeing 727 jet bound for Los Angeles crashed into a mountain 59 miles northwest of Mexico City, killing all 167 people aboard. Nine Americans were among the dead in Mexico’s worst aviation disaster.

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