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Cerritos Moves On, but Legacy of Tragedy Lingers

Disaster: Ten years after airliner slammed into suburban neighborhood, the emotions and memories remain vivid.

August 25, 1996|NORA ZAMICHOW | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The last time Jeffrey McIllwain saw his mother, she was standing on the porch in a housedress, saying that she loved him.

For goodness sake, he thought with the embarrassment of a 16-year-old, I'm only going to church.

At 11:52 a.m. on Aug. 31, 1986, while McIllwain was still at Sunday school, an Aeromexico DC-9 on approach to Los Angeles International Airport from Mexico collided with a small plane and slammed into the boy's neighborhood in Cerritos. His mother, Linda, 14 others in their houses, and 67 people aboard the two planes were killed that sunny Sunday.

It was an improbable, unthinkable tragedy: Planes plunging from blue skies into a quiet, suburban neighborhood, slaughtering people in their homes, showering body parts everywhere. Never had so many been killed on the ground as the result of an airline crash in the United States.

Today, there is no hint of the disaster. Tidy beige stucco homes with neatly shorn lawns fill the streets where 10 houses were destroyed and six severely damaged. There are no commemorative plaques. Some of those new to the area, just east of Carmenita Avenue, know nothing of its grim history. Only one family that lost a relative remains in the neighborhood: the McIllwains, who rebuilt their home.

The cause of the crash--an inadequate air traffic control system and poor judgment by the small plane's pilot--was settled long ago. The Federal Aviation Administration has tightened air space restrictions around LAX and other major airports. One of the final lawsuits stemming from the crash was settled last fall when a federal judge awarded $2.9 million to the family of the jetliner's pilot.

What remains unsettled, and in many cases deeply hidden, are the emotional consequences.

"I can still hear the plane screaming--that is a sound that I'll never forget," said Sue Nelson, who moved to Michigan five years after the crash. She was in her house eating Cheese Whiz nachos and her 7-year-old son, Robbie, was outside with his dog Peach when the Aeromexico plane spiraled to the ground. "That sound and the smell of jet fuel burning, and how everything got black and dark."

After the Cerritos City Council discussed commemorating the 10-year anniversary of the crash, two dozen residents signed a petition asking that no ceremony take place. "None of us need to have attention drawn to this area again," they wrote. Numerous residents declined to be interviewed.

In honor of residents' wishes, the council will hold a moment of silence at its meeting Thursday.

Some longtime residents, such as Wes and Carmeen Neally, did not come back to Cerritos after the crash because they wanted to erase the terrifying memory of scrambling through the flame-enshrouded neighborhood.

"After talking to counselors and to each other, we decided it was not a good idea to move back into the area that we were fighting for our lives to get out of," said Wes Neally, who was badly burned by the time he, his wife, their then 8-year-old daughter Reanna and her friend Diane escaped.

Wes Neally had been standing in his swim trunks next to the garage refrigerator when the plane crashed. The airplane's wing sliced off the top of his two-story house, the fuselage smacked into the yard, and the house burst into flames. Neally ran inside, screaming for his family, not realizing that they were in the backyard.

By the time Neally found Carmeen and the two young girls, their street had formed a wall of fire. Using a table, they climbed over their backyard brick wall, hopscotching flames, joining other neighbors in a frantic escape.

The couple's other daughter, Rochelle, then 15, worried when her mother didn't pick her up from her aunt's house as she had promised. After 90 minutes, her aunt drove her to Cerritos. The house was leveled; all that remained was a blackened, smoldering lot. Seat belts dangled from charred tree branches.

Today, Neally, a Los Angeles County weights and measures inspector, lives with his family in Yorba Linda, 15 miles east of the home where they lived 15 years.

The nightmare that once regularly haunted Wes Neally--flying aboard a plane that crashes--now strikes only a couple of times a year. Yet "probably a day doesn't go by when you don't think about it. Something relates to it, a large rumble, or just seeing a plane in the sky. Anything reminds you of it happening again."

Among his family, he alone returns to the old neighborhood, only when necessary because of his job.

The disaster strengthened the bonds in an already close family. Rochelle--25, married, and living in Costa Mesa--talks to her parents every day. Usually, she has coffee with them every Friday morning.

"You want to enjoy every day because there's no guarantee that tomorrow will come," Neally said.

Jeffrey McIllwain understands.

The night before the crash, McIllwain had come home at 1 a.m. As usual, he went into his parents' bedroom to let them know he was home, and kissed his mother good-night.

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