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Shot of AeroMexico Airplane Crash : Amateur Takes Photo Seen Worldwide

September 25, 1986|STEVEN R. CHURM | Times Staff Writer

Al Francis took the shot that has been seen around the world in recent weeks.

His photograph of the AeroMexico DC-9 falling through a cloudless sky moments before crashing in a Cerritos neighborhood on Aug. 31 was taken from Francis' backyard just six blocks from the crash site. The grainy, somewhat out-of-focus photo was on the front page of the Los Angeles Times the morning after the disaster, and since has appeared in countless newspapers and magazines in the United States and abroad.

The National Transportation Safety Board, the federal agency investigating the collision between the jet and a light plane, is studying the photo for clues to what happened that sunny Sunday when 82 passengers and people on the ground were killed and 17 homes were destroyed or damaged.

Future Use Likely

Future books or publications that recount the disaster probably will include the photo.

"It was one of those incredible instances when a guy was in the right place at the right time," said J. P. Papesse, news editor for Sygma, an international photo agency in New York that is handling the sale and distribution of the photo. "Chances of getting that picture are so rare. . . ."

Shortly before noon on the day of the disaster, Francis was taking pictures in the backyard of his house in the 13100 block of Alcare Street.

He was trying without much success to get his granddaughter Sheena, 2, and two young neighbors to pose with a kitten around the spa when he heard a large pop overhead. He whirled and spotted the red-and-white AeroMexico jet making what appeared to be a wide arcing turn in the bright sky to the east.

Recognized Trouble

Suddenly, the jet began a steep, awkward descent.

There were no flames or falling debris, but Francis, a frequent business flyer, knew the jet was in trouble. It was belly up and nose down and falling fast.

He ushered the children quickly into the house, then dashed back.

"When I ran back to the patio I realized I still had my camera around my neck," recalled Francis, a staff manager with Pacific Bell. "I just raised the camera, took two pictures and then (the plane) was gone from sight."

A loud thump followed, and then black smoke and sirens filled the air.

It happened so fast Francis was not sure whether the pictures would turn out. He was using 400 speed color film in his 35-millimeter camera. The lens on the camera was a 50-millimeter, the type normally used for close-ups and family gatherings and hardly the right choice for shooting a distant object in the sky. Shortly after Sheena was born, Francis had picked this camera for its automatic features.

'Rank Amateur'

"I'm a rank amateur, a weekend photographer," Francis said. "Before my granddaughter I was a Kodak Instamatic freak--aim and shoot."

On the chance he did get a clear shot of the DC-9, Francis called The Times, estimating that the plane was half a mile away and about 2,000 feet high when he snapped the picture. Because of the lens Francis used, the Times photo desk was skeptical that the film would be publishable. It was decided to make prints anyway. A Times photographer went to meet Francis, who had gone to a relative's wedding in Redondo Beach.

Only one of the two pictures turned out. The paper bought the good one for $500, which Francis says he will donate to the special fund established by the city of Cerritos to aid victims of the AeroMexico disaster.

Page One Surprise

Although he knew the paper intended to use the photo, he did not know it was going on Page 1.

The next morning at about 5:30, Francis pulled on his robe and went outside for the paper.

"It was still sort of dark when I picked up the paper, and I nearly fell over," he remembered. "It was right there, on the front page. I was stunned."

After it was in The Times, the picture was transmitted on the Associated Press photo wire and appeared in dozens of publications across the country, including the New York Post, Time magazine and USA Today.

Sygma then approached Francis about distributing the photo internationally. Papesse said it has appeared in Bunte, one of West Germany's largest weekly magazines, and Paris Match, a French magazine.

Royalty for Each Use

Each time Sygma sells his photo, Francis gets a royalty based on the circulation of the publication that is using it.

Francis said he has no idea how much money the photo has made, and Sygma's Papesse said the company does not discuss such matters. But he did say that news magazines like Time often pay several hundred dollars for photos like the one Francis took.

While the photo has brought unexpected attention, it has also taken a bit of an emotional toll.

In the days that followed the disaster, Francis said he cried at times, "something I have not done in a long time. Whether that's attributable to the photo or the tragedy as a whole, I just don't know."

One thing Francis is certain about is the lasting impact of that Sunday morning.

"Every time I step into that backyard and look up, I'm going to think about that plane, the moment when I saw it coming down."

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