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Book Review : Post-Mortem of a Texas Air Tragedy

September 09, 1986|LEE DEMBART

Fire & Rain: A Tragedy in American Aviation by Jerome Greer Chandler (Texas Monthly: $15.95)

I hope you won't think me terribly odd if I reveal that since I was a child, I have been fascinated by airplane accidents. As a teen-ager, I can remember poring over newspaper transcripts of conversations between the pilots of doomed airliners and controllers on the ground, wondering what was going through their minds behind the calm of their words.

Why I have had this morbid interest is anybody's guess. For that matter, who can explain why anybody is interested in anything? But have it I do, and I still devour news reports of major crashes such as the midair disaster over Cerritos last week.

I mention this for two reasons: First, to explain why I zipped through this short book (154 pages) about the 1985 crash of Delta Airlines Flight 191, which flew through a violent thunderstorm on final approach to the Dallas-Fort Worth airport, coming down a mile short of the runway and killing 136 persons on board and a motorist on the ground; and second, to say that despite my interest in these things, I found this book unsatisfying.

Jerome Greer Chandler, a free-lance journalist, happened to be in Dallas when the crash occurred shortly after 6 p.m. on Aug. 2, 1985, and he was at the scene within an hour. Since then, he has followed the threads of the accident and its aftermath and amassed considerable detail, though the book went to press before the National Transportation Safety Board issued its report on the crash of Delta 191 last July.

But his book is a collection of relatively disconnected chapters that lack a central theme. There is a chapter on the details of the crash itself; there are chapters that profile several of the passengers who died that day; there is a chapter on the rescuers; a chapter on the dispute among funeral homes over the handling of the bodies; a chapter on the hospitals where survivors were taken; a chapter on the air-traffic controllers; a chapter on the lawyers who flocked to the scene; and a chapter on low-level wind shear--the meteorological phenomenon that has caused several major crashes in recent years--which is the most informative part of the book.

In places, Chandler tries to impart a cosmic meaning to all of this, but he sounds a bit foolish. The opening pages describe the creation of the thundercloud and the fatal wind shear that forced the plane into the ground that hot Texas day.

But this idea of the forces of nature lying in wait for the machinery of man can hardly be called new. Recall the lines of Thomas Hardy's poem, "The Convergence of the Twain," about the sinking of the Titanic. First he describes the ship being built, and then he goes on to the iceberg that eventually sank it:

. . . And as the smart ship grew

In stature, grace, and hue,

In shadowy silent distance grew the Iceberg too.

Alien they seemed to be;

No mortal eye could see

The intimate welding of their later history.

In two poignant, touching chapters, Chandler profiles two of the passengers who were killed in the crash, a 69-year-old woman whose husband had died of heart disease a few months before, and a 33-year-old businessman with a wife and two small children.

Not to denigrate their stories, but everybody has a biography. Everybody has plans and hopes and friends and family who are shaken when a life close to them is snuffed out suddenly and violently and without reason.

But Chandler gives this an aspect of "The Bridge of San Luis Rey." He wonders what hand of fate brought all of these different people together that day aboard Flight 191. Well, what brought them together was that they were flying from Fort Lauderdale to Dallas, nothing more nor less.

Profiles of dead passengers are appropriate for newspaper stories in the aftermath of a crash, but unless there is a broader point, they are out of place between hard covers. Here there is no broader point.

Chandler tells us at the outset that he is going to stick to the facts and not deal with issues such as deregulation or airline safety. For the most part, he observes this pledge, but not entirely. In the preface he notes that 2,089 people died in commercial airplane crashes in 1985, the highest toll in the history of aviation.

The implication, at least, is that something is wrong with the system, a theme he amplifies near the end of the book, arguing that air traffic control has not yet recovered from President Reagan's firing of the striking controllers in 1981.

But 1985 was also a record year for passenger traffic, and the number of fatal accidents was not significantly greater than in many other years. The planes were bigger, however, so the number of people killed was larger than in years when smaller planes crashed.

Chandler's book doesn't attempt to apportion blame. It is strong on detail and weak on synthesizing it.

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