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Valley Perspective

Miracle With a Message

March 12, 2000

We can all be thankful that no one was killed or seriously injured when a Southwest Airlines 737 on a flight from Las Vegas crashed through a barrier at the Burbank-Glendale-Pasadena Airport last Sunday night and skidded to a stop on Hollywood Way.

And while we're at it, we can thank 18-year-old Carlos Martinez, who, when he saw the plane hurtling toward the Chevron station where he worked, had the presence of mind--and the courage--to call 911 (and his boss), shut off the gas flow from the underground storage tanks and then aid stunned passengers.

Other bystanders, including airport shuttle drivers Vartan Edzhuryan and Abayomi Omolewu, also rushed to help despite fear that the plane might explode. Parking structure manager Eric Miranda comforted a mother and child--miraculously uninjured--whose car wound up under the plane.

Call it luck or call it a miracle that only four of 142 passengers and crew members were hospitalized and then only briefly. But whatever we call it, we can't count on being so fortunate again.

While the National Transportation Safety Board investigates what caused the accident--passenger accounts and information from the two data recorders show that the pilots began their descent late and fast--Burbank and airport officials, the airlines and the Federal Aviation Administration need to look at what can prevent future disasters.

Specifically, they need to revive a stalemated agreement to build a new airport terminal at a safer distance from the runways.

Sunday's near disaster had nothing to do with the terminal, as opponents of airport expansion have been quick to point out. But no one could look at this 108,000-pound plane barreling through a metal fence and not make the connection.

The FAA has for years pressed the airport to build a new terminal in a safer location. The facility in use now was built in 1930 and sits about 300 feet from the intersection of the two runways, leading to concern that a wayward plane might crash into a row of parked planes or into the building itself.

The terminal has been at the center of a decades-long war over expanding the Burbank Airport. Expansion opponents, weary of airport noise, argue that building a new, larger terminal would lead to more flights. But they have won that battle; the agreement calls for a terminal with the same number of gates as the old one.

Opponents also want a nighttime curfew and a cap on the number of flights. They see the terminal as their only bargaining chip. They refuse to acknowledge that they are gambling with safety.

Who will break this deadlock? Burbank Mayor Stacey Murphy plans to meet with FAA Administrator Jane Garvey in early April. That's a welcome first step in figuring out a way to make the agreement work and get a new terminal built at last.

Is the terminal all that should be examined in the aftermath of this accident? No. The Southwest airliner, because of pilot error or other reasons the NTSB will determine, ran out of runway. Burbank's 6,032-foot runway is adequate for the types of planes that land there, including 737s. And the runway, although considered relatively short, is longer than some, including Orange County's John Wayne Airport at 5,700 feet.

But if something goes wrong, as it did Sunday night, there is not much extra runway, no safety buffer. The FAA, according to spokesman Mitch Barker, recommends, but does not require, an extra length of runway that can be used in case a plane can't stop as quickly as it should. Noise activists, however, tend to oppose extending runways, which they see as a ploy to accommodate larger aircraft. Indeed, the tri-city agreement to operate the airport prohibits longer runways.

Are there other options that should be considered? Should the airport add safety buffers to its property? What would that entail? How does the risk of overshooting the runway stack up against other safety concerns? Should the gas station, at least, be closed? These are questions Burbank and airport officials should ask in the wake of Sunday's accident.

But an answer already exists on the question of moving the terminal. It can be made safer. Now.

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