For air traffic controller Robin Lee Wascher, the Feb. 1 disaster on Los Angeles International Airport Runway 24-Left--her runway--was "especially tragic" because her parents had died in an aviation accident nearly 14 years ago, friends and co-workers said.
Norman K. and Beverly Jean Wascher vanished June 19, 1977, while flying to Oxnard in their single-engine plane after attending another daughter's college graduation in Eureka, Calif. The plane has never been found.
The deaths cast a shadow over Robin Wascher's long interest in flight and became a dominant feature of her life. Before she took the controller position in Los Angeles, Wascher had told a former supervisor that she wanted to return to California and resume the search for her parents.
"She said it was something that she dreamed about from time to time," said Harry Pelphrey, her former Federal Aviation Administration instructor. "When you can't finalize something, there's always a doubt."
Wascher, an eight-year veteran, authorized a USAir Boeing 737 to land on the same runway she had turned over to a SkyWest commuter plane. The ensuing collision killed 34 people; 67 survived. The controller, who is in seclusion, has told federal investigators that she had confused the SkyWest craft with a similar plane on a nearby taxiway.
The lapse was not typical of the Wascher who is uniformly recalled by neighbors, colleagues and friends as a precise, no-nonsense professional who knew from her parents' example the terrible price to be paid in aviation accidents.
"It was very traumatic" for Robin and her two sisters, said former brother-in-law James Nuciforo, describing the parents' fatal accident.
The Los Angeles disaster, he said, "just dredges up an old pain on top of a new one."
Despite months of searching by air and on horseback through the rugged redwood forests near Eureka, no trace has been found of the Wascher family's cream-colored Aero Commander 112. Death certificates list the parents' fate as: "Unknown; airplane disappeared in wilderness--not found."
The death of Wascher's parents, not recognized officially until 1987, "devastated" their three grown daughters, said a former neighbor who still resides in the solidly middle-class neighborhood in Thousand Oaks where the family had lived.
Relatives said the uncertainty of the parents' fate is still discussed occasionally among the sisters--Cherie, 39, Robin, 38, and Heidi, 36.
Robin has spoken of her parents' death to many of her friends but declined to discuss any details. Friends said the loss of her parents was one of the few troubles borne by the slight but strong woman they described as socially reserved but professionally assertive.
Friends said the Wascher family revolved around her outgoing father, a purchasing agent for Ring Bros. Construction Co. who was remembered by his co-workers as "an awful good man," an avid fisherman--and "an excellent pilot." Her mother, who did not work outside the house, was involved in charities and collected turquoise jewelry.
"The girls were very close--very, very close--and they were all close to their dad," said J. E. Parsons, a friend and president of Ring Bros.
Norman Wascher flew his 1974 Rockwell Aero Commander about once a week for pleasure, said Al Misevic, an Oxnard Airport mechanic who maintained the craft. Wascher owned several other planes before arriving at Oxnard with the Commander, Misevic said.
His middle daughter, Robin, enlisted in the Air Force after graduating from Thousand Oaks High School and attending nearby Moorpark Junior College for one year. In the Air Force, where she attained the rank of sergeant, she first worked as a dental specialist before becoming an air traffic controller.
In 1977, Wascher was in Alaska with her younger sister, driving to her new assignment at Elmendorf Air Force Base outside Anchorage, when their parents' plane was reported missing, Nuciforo said. It took several days for the sisters to learn of the accident. The Red Cross immediately flew them to California to help in a full-time search for the plane.
Five weeks after her parents' disappearance, Wascher was discharged from the Air Force. Military records available to the public do not list the type of discharge Wascher received. She rejoined her family's ongoing search for the plane.
"We sat down and went over Civil Air Patrol reports and scrutinized everything," Nuciforo said. Hiking through redwood forests and searching on horseback led family and friends only to a number of old, "marked wrecks" from other small-plane crashes.
Darrell Turner of the air patrol in Eureka said he and other searchers assumed that the pilot was disoriented in the thick fog that blanketed the Northern California coast the afternoon of the disappearance. He said a witness in the logging town of Rio Dell reported hearing an airplane in the clouds following the Eel River down toward the ocean.