Although it was by no means the most deadly accident in U.S. aviation history, the fiery Feb. 1 collision between a USAir 737 and a SkyWest commuter plane at Los Angeles International Airport may have been one of the most disturbing. All 12 passengers and crew aboard SkyWest Might 5569 died immediately when the smaller plane was crushed on the runway. For the 89 passengers and crew on the USAir jet, tragedy unfolded more slowly. Most if not all survived the impact, but 22 died as flames and smoke engulfed the plane within two minutes after impact. From the location of the bodies, authorities believe that 17 of those who perished in the USAir plane had actually unbuckled their seat belts and were making their way to exits when they were overcome by smoke. Only two victims were found in their seats. “I can’t think of a recent accident where this many people have been up and out of their seats and didn’t make it out,” said James Burnett, the head of the National Transportation Safety Board investigation team.
The crash itself was apparently the result of mechanical failure and split-second human error. Shortly after 6 P.M. the SkyWest Metroliner, a twin-turboprop bound for Palmdale. Calif., was waiting to be cleared for takeoff on runway 24-L. At about the same time USAir Flight 1493, which had originated in Syracuse, N.Y., was approaching the airport after stops in Washington, D.C., and Columbus, Ohio. Up in the LAX tower, controller Robin Lee Wascher, 38, apparently confused another Metroliner, which was not on the runway, with the Sky West aircraft, which she did not see. The display terminal for the ground radar system that might have warned her the SkyWest flight was on the runway was not functioning.
As a result she cleared USAir 1493 to land on 24-L. Hurtling in for touchdown at 150 mph, the pilot didn’t see the small commuter jet until it was too late. The force of the collision sent the two planes slamming into a nearby building, destroying the Metroliner. As smoke swiftly filled the cabin of the USAir flight, panicked passengers discovered that only three of six exits were completely clear, though one of those was briefly blocked by a scuffle that reportedly erupted between two unidentified men frantic to get out; the other three exits were either crushed shut by the crash or obstructed by fire.
In the days after the crash, federal authorities vowed that they would look into issues raised by the crash, such as improved access to exits and the greater use of fire-retardant materials, in order to prevent similar tragedies. Meanwhile, the 67 men and women who survived are still haunted by the last terrifying moments of their USAir flight. They shared their memories with correspondents John Hannah and Eleanor Hoover in Los Angeles and Sandra Gurvis in Columbus.
“The landing was almost flawless,” says Dwayne Bennett, 27, a Los Angeles-based quality control specialist for the Defense Department, who was returning from a business trip to Washington. “The next thing that happened was the pilot hit the brakes hard. Then we seemed to hit something. I put my arms out, and the seat in front of me collapsed like a folding chair. The plane began to slide, first to the right, then to the left. It seemed to take forever. I saw an orange glow and then fire on the left side. At almost the same time, I could see that the window was starting to melt. I never got a good look at the flames because smoke started to fill the cabin.”
“There was a lot of panic and commotion when we were going down the runway, but a lot of people were saying, “Stay calm, stay calm,’ and for the most part people did,” recalls Capt. Christina Voss, 29, a cost analyst for the Air Force who is based in El Segundo, Calif. “The plane wasn’t cartwheeling or anything. Nobody got in the crash position because none of us really knew what was going on. When we hit the building there was a pretty big jolt, then we came to a very quick stop. I remember one thing clearly: a very loud click of seat-belts being undone. It was amazing. Normally when you come to a stop, some people take them off right away, others wait a while—but this was everybody at once. One loud click.”
“I knew we had to get out of there,” says Laurel Bravo, 24. A market researcher from Cleveland, Bravo was on vacation with her cousin Alysse Rosewater, 22, of Cincinnati, who works in the marketing department of Proctor & Gamble. “I turned to Alysse, grabbed her hand and said, ‘Don’t let go.’ We started down toward the exit. People were shouting, ‘Don’t panic!’ and ‘Stay low!’ Black smoke started up almost at once. Mostly I remember the black. It was so black I couldn’t see the people ahead of me. I could only feel them. We were moving slowly but constantly. We were squatting down and coughing from the smoke, but I never lost Alysse’s hand. It was horrifying. I knew I wasn’t going to give in, but I wasn’t sure I was going to make it out, either.”
The lights were on just long enough to see the smoke coming down the inside of the plane.” says Mark Mayling, 26, a freelance cameraman from Uxbridge, England, who was on the plane with four other members of a British television crew. (All got out except director David Sharp, 37, whose body has not been identified.) “Everybody was crawling over each other to get out. You’d like to think perhaps you’d give way to someone else. But you can’t, there’s no time. You just panic.”
“I started back toward the rear exit,” remembers Bennett, who was sitting toward the back of the plane. “Then I heard a woman cry, ‘Help me. I can’t get out.’ She had panicked and couldn’t unbuckle her seat belt. I helped her get loose and said, ‘C’mon, follow me.’ The smoke was so dark at this point, you couldn’t see the emergency lights.”
“I felt fine until the smoke hit me,” says Stephen Sipprell, 26, an aircraft engineer for McDonnell Douglas in the Los Angeles area, who was sitting four rows behind the left wing exit. “It was very similar to the feeling of being underwater and running out of air and knowing you can see the surface. I just went for the exit as fast as I could. I climbed over rows 12 and 11. I couldn’t see, but I remembered where the exit was, and so I just crawled over there and felt around for it. I grabbed the edges of the exit and pulled myself out. I heard a lady saying, ‘I’m stuck, I can’t get up!’ She was close to wherever I was but I couldn’t see her because of the smoke. I did a belly flop on the wing and then ran outboard of the engine, grabbed onto the flaps and dropped down. I really don’t know how long it took me to get out. Some parts took a long time, some happened in a flash.”
“Two guys stood in front of one [wing] exit, arguing over who should open the door,” says Ronald Givens, 36, an automotive parts inspector from Pickerington, Ohio, who had flown to Los Angeles to help with the funeral arrangements for his father. “It seemed like they were pushing and shoving and accusing each other of not opening it fast enough, like, ‘You don’t know how to do it, and I do.” Suddenly the door came open—maybe because they were leaning against the door while fiddling with it. Both guys fell out of the plane and ran away. But there was still a pile eight or nine people deep blocking the exit. I thought if I tried to crawl out, I would be squashed too. So I jumped over the pile. I don’t know how I did it because I’m not in good physical condition. I don’t remember landing. The next thing I knew I was on the wing looking down. Afterward several passengers came up and thanked me. I asked them, ‘For what?’ They told me I’d pulled several people out of that pile. I do remember assisting one lady whose purse was caught in the doorway. She was worried about leaving her credit cards.”
“I ran around to the back of the plane and saw one of the victims running toward me,” says Sgt. Michael Vaccariello, 38, of the L.A. Airport Police, one of the first emergency workers to reach the stricken plane. “He had on some tattered underwear, no shoes, was covered with foam and totally burned. He was alert but couldn’t talk. I told him to lie down on the ground, then I took off my uniform shirt and put it over him. Someone handed mc some paper towels, and I wiped some of the foam off.
“The paramedics came up and placed the man on a gurney. They put a sheet over him, gave me a container of water and told me to keep sprinkling it over him while we were moving. I told him just what I was going to do…. “Now I’m going to pour a little water over your arms…now on your legs.” so he wouldn’t be too scared or surprised. They put an oxygen mask on him, and he pointed to his face. I guess it hurt him because of the burn, so they adjusted it. He was burned over 95 percent of his body. I don’t think he made it.”
“Out on the runway I saw a woman limping but still trying to run. I helped her take off her boot and saw that she had a broken ankle,” says Dwayne Bennett. “Later I saw a man so badly burned that his skin was flaking off like paint. A flight attendant had a deep cut on his head and was in such deep shock that he was incoherent. He kept insisting that he had to go back to the plane to ‘help those others.’ I tried to get him to lie down. The flight attendants were all marvelous-one was crying but still doing her job, giving instructions to passengers, trying to keep them calm.”
“I went back to the side of the plane, and they had set up a triage center there,” says Sergeant Vaccariello. “There was a survivor there, a woman violin player who had broken her leg. She was worried about her violin that was still on the plane. I asked, ‘Is it a Stradivarius?’ She said, ‘No, but it’s as dear to me as if it were.’ This story has a happy ending. Two days later they were pulling wreckage from the plane, and here was this violin case, burned on the outside, but still okay inside. The airline sent it to her with a new case.”
“The only time I cried was when we called home,” says Laurel Bravo. “We didn’t realize the severity of the crash at first, or that it would be on the news immediately. After all, there’s a war on. We were going to say something like, ‘We’re fine, but…’ But when I said, ‘Hi, Mom,’ she shouted, ‘Oh, Laurel,’ and burst out crying, and I started crying too. They had been waiting for 45 minutes to hear something. I was standing there with one shoe missing, my face black, covered with foam, wrapped in a wet blanket, crying, glad to be alive.”
“I spent a day in the hospital,” says Stephen Sipperell. “I was coughing up this tarry stuff. They vacuumed out my lungs and monitored me for a while. For three days after the accident, I stayed at my mother’s house in Palos Verdes. I feel sort of guilty that I made it out and 20-some people didn’t. I have a hard time dealing with that. So I’ve been sleeping with the light on. I have the dogs in here with me at night.”