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Lifelong Friendships, Bright Futures Ended in Jet's Crash

March 31, 2001|RICHARD FAUSSET and CARLA RIVERA and RICHARD WINTON | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

Many were friends, brought together by a group of talented young men who had met as kids and over the years continued to play together as adults. The men had invited relatives, girlfriends and colleagues for a birthday celebration and ski weekend in the Rocky Mountains.

On Friday, relatives and friends of the 18 people who died when their chartered Gulfstream III crashed near Aspen struggled with their loss.

Among the 15 passengers were an award-winning young filmmaker, a talented assignment editor and a research assistant for KTTV Channel 11 News. The plane's crew--two pilots and a flight attendant--also died.

The group was said to be celebrating the birthday of Mario Aguilar, a young actor and businessman. He died along with his siblings, Joe and Joey Aguilar, as well as their mother and an aunt, said a relative of Joe's girlfriend, Elena Bernal. Bernal also was killed in the crash.

At KTTV News, employees tried to cover the story even as they mourned their colleagues, assignment editor Mirweis "Mir" Tukhi, 26, and Marissa Witham, 22, a production assistant.

In Buena Park, a weeping Jawad Tukhi, 28, said his brother "died with 10 of his best friends from kindergarten."

According to accounts from several relatives, many of the young men had attended Bancroft Junior High in Hollywood. They stayed close over the years as they went off to college and began working, said friends and family.

The core group--Tukhi, Mario Aguilar, Ivan Garcia and Eugene Kaplansky, 26--had taken other vacations together, including a ski trip last year to Colorado, relatives said.

The plane was chartered by Robert Neu, a financier and friend of the group, which included 23-year-old filmmaker Ori Greenberg. Neu was a potential investor in a production company Greenberg had formed with his father, said a friend of Greenberg.

"You talk about your cigar-chomping, arrogant Hollywood types. These kids were anything but," said Victoria Greenberg, Ori's mother. "They were so centered and solid, and they had their heads on straight. They were the new breed."

Here are sketches of some of the victims:

* Greenberg graduated from Orange County's Chapman University in December. Three months into his professional life, friends said, he was already on the fast track.

Greenberg grew up in Malibu. His father, George Greenberg, is president of Vanguard Media Corp. Young Greenberg had worked as a production assistant for Hollywood mogul Jerry Bruckheimer. At the Moxie!/Santa Monica International Film Festival in February, Greenberg won a directing award for a short film about a homeless woman.

"I think Ori would have made it big in filmmaking," said Harry Cheney, a former teacher at Chapman.

Greenberg had caught the attention of the production company Ifilm while doing production work there. The company eventually hired him to produce an episode scheduled to air April 9 for a new cable series on the Independent Film Channel.

Greenberg, who lived in Hermosa Beach, was a fan of big-budget action movies and had a script ready for such a project, titled "Underground," his mother said.

Greenberg's girlfriend, Elizabeth Ann Smith, who had moved from Seattle to Hollywood, also was killed in the crash. "They were deeply in love and had everything in the world to look forward to," Victoria Greenberg said.

Greg Favro of Burbank said Smith, his cousin, had been dating Greenberg for about two years. Smith, 21, worked at retailer Fred Segal in Los Angeles and in Santa Monica. He said Smith often helped Ori with his films, especially with costume design.

* Mir Tukhi was a 1998 graduate of Chapman University. He received the university's Chris Harris Award, which recognizes the school's best broadcast journalism student. A year later, he was part of a team nominated for a local Emmy for a story about former astronaut John Glenn.

Pete Weitzner, one of Tukhi's professors at Chapman, said Tukhi was a mature, confident man who handled the pressure of the news business with grace.

Tukhi's dream was to work in front of the camera as a reporter. "He was torn," Weitzner said. "He wanted to be on the air, but he was doing so well behind the scenes."

Outside the Buena Park home where Tukhi lived with his parents, originally from Afghanistan, and two brothers, relatives gathered Friday, crying and embracing one another.

"We collected Superman memorabilia," his younger brother, Faheem, 19, said. "He was my Superman. He taught me everything I know. I lived for him."

* Marissa Witham, originally from Hayward, graduated magna cum laude from UCLA last June, and wanted to be a TV newscaster. Like Tukhi, she interned at the station before being hired to work full time.

Witham's father, Lyle Witham of Hayward--a retired airline pilot--said he and his wife, Laurece, had checked into the background of the charter company and the type of plane before giving consent for the Aspen trip.

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