San Diego Stories by Salvatore Filippone

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September 29, 2003

Remembering Flight 182

I was five when my family moved up to Mission Hills from the old neighborhood. I never thought about why. It just kind of happened. One day here, the other day there. It wasn’t too uncomfortable, except for the jump from immigrant ghetto to lower middle class. In late 1978, there was a big move of Italian families to Middletown, but the reason wasn’t economic. We spent our years down there looking up at the bellies of landing airplanes, probably not thinking about the worst, until the worst finally happened. On the morning of September 25, a plane fell from the sky, crashing a few miles away in North Park.

The plume of smoke was visible from our front porch. Thick and black near the horizon, thinning out and trailing off at the top. My mother grabbed us and headed over to the neighbors, down the street. As soon as we turned the corner, we saw folks outside their homes. It seemed like the entire neighborhood was there. All kinds of stuff going on for a curious five year-old me; folks excitedly pointing towards the smoke, shaking their heads in disbelief, other people with folded arms, with one hand covering their mouths. A neighbor had been at school, over at San Diego High, who saw everything. From that campus, one can see the planes coming from miles away, how high in the sky they are. Mikey explained, eyes wide, using his arm to illustrate the descent of the crippled plane, twisting it away and then down.

That one little pantomime is what sticks with me to this very day, whenever the crash is mentioned. It was probably the only action my five-year old mind could understand. The next day, I remember seeing the picture on the front page of the paper. We had a San Diego Union vending machine on the street corner, which we could see from the front window of the house. It was from there I saw the image of the doomed aircraft on the front page. Finally outside, I was able to study the image up close.

It looks the same today as it did then. The image is too revealing, too sad to look at, yet too powerful to ignore. It’s grainy, in that old, seventies Kodak sort of way. The plane is frozen in time, plunging towards earth, veering to the right, then down. The right wing is on fire, burning intensely. Its blaze emits a glow, casting an eerie orange against the fuselage that makes the letters PSA stand out. The landing gear is extended, as are the flaps and whatever else they could do to try and control that airplane. One could feel that the pilots were doing their best to regain control. Other images are said to exist that reveal frightened passengers looking out the windows.

Various reports about the crash exist that describe a mid-air collision between the Boeing 727 and a Cessna, in broad daylight. All agree that the two aircraft had failed to maintain visual contact. The Cessna was controlled by a student pilot, and was on approach to Lindbergh Field at the same time as PSA 182 was making final preparations to land. The Tower had radioed 182, informing them that the Cessna was ahead of them at a lower altitude. 182’s pilots confirmed visual and continue landing preparations, but somewhere along the way, lost the small plane. In the transcript, the PSA pilot asks if they’ve passed the smaller plane. The co-pilot confirms jokingly, adding, “I hope…” In the next few minutes, the two aircraft would collide. Flight 182 continued its descent as the Cessna ascended. It tore through the right wing, puncturing the fuel tank and fatally disabling the larger plane. The Cessna fell out of the sky, crashing close to the point of impact, while 17 seconds later, the PSA crashed about a mile or two away in a North Park neighborhood, wiping out about 22 homes. In total, 144 lives were lost. None of the people on board survived, and seven people on the ground were killed in the impact and resulting fire. In 1978, it was the worst air disaster to date.

We’d find out later that a friend of the family was on 182. She had swapped seats with a friend who worked for PSA. Mr. Corona was going to leave that morning for home, having worked the night shift at LAX. Desperate to get home to San Diego, Mrs. Vella asked Mr. Corona if she could get on the flight. Don obliged, giving up his seat and opting instead to drive down to San Diego. He’d hear the news report in the car, just 40 minutes later.

An acquaintance of mine lost his sister on that flight. I can’t imagine how rough it must have been their family. I’d later meet and become friends with his nephew Greg, who was but five when his mother died. I met Greg just after the 9/11 attacks, which he’d experienced right in lower Manhattan.

All this stuff mixes and tumbles around in my head as I write this. But I wonder…did the city change at all because of this?

The San Diego of 1978 and 2003 are light years away from each other. The accident gave airport opponents fuel to get the airport moved elsewhere, an argument that has been ongoing for at least 40 years, and is still ongoing. But only a few years after, the airport expanded by adding a new terminal, increasing the number of flights exponentially. As a matter of fact, development around the airport has increased, if anything, and a few landmarks are testament to that. I get nervous every time I see a plane land ‘too close’ to the roof of a certain parking garage on the corner of Kettner and laurel streets. If you were to sand at the highest point of the roof, you could probably tickle the belly of an aircraft with your index finger.

Downtown was a ‘sailor’s paradise’ in ’78: hookers, massage parlors, bookies, pimps, drug dealers, and u-name-it. In its place are hotels, restaurants, clubs, a convention center and a new ballpark. The tourism in the city has gradually increased yearly, thanks to events like the Super Bowl and Comic-Con, and attractions like the San Diego Zoo and Sea World. In the past 10 years, the airport has yet again expanded and begun including flights from Europe, and development in the city keeps going like nobody’s business. The San Diego of 1978 seems like a distant memory compared to today. But it should be remembered at least, as a time when San Diego was an innocent little navy town, when you could walk along the harbor and see 120 fishing boats docked and getting ready to go out for a month’s trip.

The anniversary of the accident passed silently the other day, with a little mention in the paper. The aerospace museum is marking the anniversary with an exhibit on the “Poor Sailor’s Airline” that began here at Lindbergh field so long ago. I’ll be going to pay my respects, to the smilin’ airline I loved so much as a boy.

Posted by sfilippone at September 29, 2003 09:58 PM


Unfortunately, one aspect of PSA FL 182 seems to have sprung up.. I found it on your page and also on the Union Tribune's site....This is the myth that there are photos of the PSA 182 crashing with faces in the windows of the aircraft. It's simply untrue, there are just two photos of the whole incident, period that Hans Wendt alone shot....they are both grainy, shot from far away and even in the clearest versions there are no faces in the windows. Most airliner photos you can't see faces in the windows....especially not in the pics of this crash. Take a look at this clear shot of the same airplane on the ground

Posted by: John Harjo at December 22, 2004 10:00 PM

I was serving in the Marines and was serving at Camp Pendleton the late 70's. I was assigned to HML-267, a light helicopter squadron stationed at Pendleton. We routinely performed medivacs for emergency situations, and really bad car accidents, normally on highway 5. Sept 25 started like any other day, but soon changed my life. We had an emergency call soon after the crash occured. I did not have to go on that particular call, but a good friend of mine did. He couldn't even talk about all that he witnessed, but weeks after he opened up a little about what he saw. Obviously, there was nothing he or any one else could do. The neighborhood was burning, and there were body parts everywhere. I will never forget the expression on his face.

Posted by Michael Brewington @ 11/15/2003 05:52 PM PST

I was perusing the San Diego paper via the net about the fire out by Julian today. I ate apple pie there on vacation in June, while I was in your town seeing my brother in a play @ the Globe.

My friend and hometown neighbor from Illinois, Karen Borzewski, was a stewardess on Flight 182. It was listed as one of the biggest fires in San Diego County history.

Now you all are facing another huge challenge. Having survived Hurricane Andrew, I have an inkling of the vastness of your problem. My heart and prayers are with you.

Will Stransky Pompano Beach

Posted by Will Stransky @ 10/28/2003 11:00 PM PST

I remember that awful day coming home from school to meet my parents' disturbed faces. We had just moved to San Francisco from San Diego. My father was able to make his PSA transfer just two weeks before the crash. Flight 182 was his weekly commute flight from the Bay Area to San Diego. If the new house hadn't been ready for move-in he would have perished on that flight. It was so sad to hear him read all his co-workers' names on the listing that died. Most of the flight's passengers were PSA employees or small children he had told me. He informed me that the crash site was completely gruesome-pieces of body parts everywhere. I remember the news showing shoes, etc... Later he flew down for the mass memorial. I've visited the area 25 years later. It's a sad feeling when you are there. Remembering what had happened, knowing that your father would have been on that plane and all the lives that were lost.

Posted by Carrie @ 10/28/2003 05:30 PM PST

It was a very hot Santa Ana day (some might say it felt like earthquake weather) and my Torrey Pines High School PE class had to obstain from any activity because it was too hot. My teacher arrived and announced there had been a plane crash somewhere near the airport and reports were just coming in that it might be a PSA plane. I remember feeling a tightness in my stomach, it was just one of those things that "you knew." I remember sitting with the other students and was approached by the Principal's assistant asking for Susan Walsh. I got up and asked if my Dad was OK and she told me, "I am not at liberty to discuss this matter with you." "Your mother will be here in 30 minutes to pick you up." She walked me to the Pricipal's office and shut the door. No one came in. Those were the longest 30 minutes of my life. Finally, my mother arrived. I remember looking her in the eyes and asking if Dad was OK. She just said, "I'm sorry honey, he's dead."
That was 25 years ago and seems like a another life. It took years of time and counseling to get over the loss. The media and notoriety of having my father, a PSA Captain, die in the largest plane disaster at the time was a lot (sometimes too much) for a teenager to handle. They say with every bad thing that happens, something good will come of it. For me, it is a closeness and a bond that I have with my Mother and younger brother(an America West pilot) that is immeasurable. I know life is precious and my 38 year father lived his 38 years to the fullest. I live every day with my husband and two teenage boys as if it could be my last.

Posted by Susan Walsh Giovianzzo @ 10/28/2003 05:28 PM PST

I was only about 1/2 mile from the intersection of Dwight and Niles streets that Monday morning. I was lost and trying to find direction to the San Diego Zoo. I remember how hot the day became, over 100 degrees as I recall. I stopped at a Sav-on drug store to get some film and ask how to get to the zoo. My girl friend and I heard the first boom of the collision then looked up to see the plane on flames, heading what seemed like, right for us. It seemed to float almost like it was ok for a few seconds. It then banked hard right and dropped like a rock. The second explosion was like a Los Angeles earthquake. the ground shook, and a huge black cloud appeared beyond some trees and structures. I ran the 20 or so blocks to the crash site in a minute or two. It was a sight that I will never forget. I cant imagine anything that you would see in a full blown war zone any worse that that. Bodies dont get that destroyed in a war, at least not that many at one time. It did not bother me that much at the time, but as the years have worn on, I still recall that moment with more and more clarity. I was a Los Angeles City Fire Department recruit and I guess that I wanted to "save a life". When I got there, it was clear that there were no lives to save. I was surprised how long it took for the police to clear out the area. People just milled around for most of the day, picking up things and basically hanging around. It was almost dark before the police started arresting people who did not have any business in the area. After seeing the entire crash and the aftermath first hand, I was later surprised to learn how small an area was actually dmaged. One side of a short block and a few homes on the other side. Once in a while when I go to San Diego I travel to the crash site. Most of the old 50's type homes are still intact. On one side of the street, all of the homes are newer and clearly out of place. Many of the people in the neighborhood were there on September 25, 1978, and remember the crash. To many, it was the worst day in the history of San Diego. I know that I will never forget it or ever see anything that grusome

Posted by Phil @ 10/24/2003 12:16 AM PST

Even with the multitude of avation disasters that have occured in the world since PSA Flight 182 I remember that particular one, even though I was on the opposite side of the country. Perhaps is was the way those horrific pictures happened to capture the tragedy unfolding in clear, broad daylight; That one particular shot of the huge airliner coming down is still the scariest photo I have ever seen in my life. It is good that someone remembers and writes about it from time to time...if only to remind those who are so hell bent on expanding once small airports located in densly populated neighboorhoods, into larger dangerous propositions. Airport planners in Warwick, Rhode Island take note and think about what it might have been like to be in Balboa Park that morning of September 25, 1978.

Posted by Dore Page @ 10/06/2003 10:00 PM PST

I remember PSA 182 very well. I was only ten at the time of the
accident,but it's like it was yesterday. I remember were I was when I heard about it. When you read the transcript,it is obvious
the 727 crew is not sure about which traffic they are supposed to watch out for. "Ö.K.we had it their a minute ago." Very sad for all that were involved.
It is to bad the lessons of 182 were not learned. Aeromexico lost
a DC 9 landing into LAX in 86. Not the same scenario,but still a midair collision with a small plane. It devastated a Cerritos neighbourhood. Yes ,I to remember Sept 25 each year.

Posted by David Williamson @ 10/02/2003 06:10 PM PST

Posted by: sal at December 22, 2004 10:01 PM

I have just finished watching the story of flight 191, the chicago flight, which occured in May 1979. As my wife of 25 years was also watching me my memory flashed back to the day of September 25, 1978 and I recall as if it was just yesterday that this terrible tragedy occured. I was a young sailor stationed on board a ship docked at 32nd street naval yard. I was up on on the bridge deck and off in the distance was one of the most beautiful sights I recall of my stinct in the Navy, that of the skyline of San Diego. It was a very beautiful day and mid morning. I remember seeing a commericial plane flying over the city and I though to my self how beautiful that appeared. Then it disappeared. I don,t recall seeing the planes actually hit, but I do recall seeing the black smoke rising into the sky north of base, at quite a distance. I didn't really know what happened until the next day when I read the newspaper for September 26. I had forgotten about the great debate of someone thinking that faces could be seen looking out of the planes window, untill I reread it in the above comments. Now that I think about it, I can clearly see that picture in the San Diego newspaper. I will never forget that terrible day, I havn't shared those thoughts and memories with anyone before, it is really "scarry" how events can be forgotten for such a long time and them be recalled from watching something else on the tv or internet. I wish all the families that have lost loved ones my deepest love and sympathy and trust that their memories have become sweet ones for them and their loss from that day.

Posted by: Ronald Littlejohn at February 5, 2005 07:56 PM

I also remember that day. I was 10 and lived in Carlsbad. I could not get the images and visual impressions left from first accounts out of my mind. Many are still there.

I drive through the area where the doomed flight came to earth from time to time and wonder why there is no plaque at the site anywhere. Or is there? Does the neighborhood just want to forget? I guess I can understand that as well, but there does seem to be an area near the site that runs down a hill toward the 805 freeway. Why not there?

On this day my aunt and uncle were actually on the 805 near El Cajon Blvd, and my recollection of their(they are no longer here to validate this)account had them and others stopped on the freeway in utter disbelief of what they were witnessing. They even wondered if the pilots were somehow making an attempt to crash in the area of the freeway where there were at least stretches of vacant land and a minimum of cars on the road(rush hour was over), but this I'm sure was the thinking of people trying to make some sense out of the absolute insanity they had witnessed.

Neither one of them were very stable minded after seeing that crash. Both of them were deeply disturbed for the rest of their lives by it.

Posted by: Scott Futrell at February 15, 2005 08:49 PM

I was in Spanish class at Roosevelt Junior High (right next to the zoo.) We heard a boom - the teacher (Sr. Montes) said "a plane!" and the whole class turned around to see the impact. I remember seeing the mushroom cloud rising up.

It was a very hot day. Schools closed early that day because of the heat. The Santa Ana winds blew from the crash toward the school. I remember seeing a charred boarding pass from flight 182 that a kid had found.

Since we got out of school early some friends and I tried to bicycle toward the site. (What else are you going to do when you are fourteen years old and get out of school early?) We couldn't get anywhere close, so we headed back home.

Posted by: Robbie at April 19, 2005 11:01 AM

The PSA crash. I will never forget that crash. Reading the other posts brought back that day vividly. I was seven years old at the time. I too remember it being an unbelievably hot day. Our school was let out in the middle of the day because of the heat. I was called to the office and waited there while the office tried to reach my mother. Because of the crash, my mom's phone lines were down at her work and they could not get a hold of her. I had to sit in the office for three hours and went home with a family friend because they could not get ahold of her. I remember the chaos and everybody talking about a crash in North Park. Being only 7, I was more concerned that I couldnt go home, but the day was surreal. I do remember finally going home and watching the news. The destruction was amazing. The next day's paper had a grainy picture of the airplane, with the wing on fire, about to go down. Right next to the picture looked like this: "Oh Sh** we are going to die." (Word of passenger on the plane). That is what I remember best about that tragic day.
My sister and her husband bought a house on Nile. When we would go to their house, I would always stop and look at the field where the plane crashed. That crash is such a tragic day in San Diego's history-right up there with the Mcdonald's killings by James Huberty and th Heaven's Gate suicides. My heart goes out to all the families who lost a loved one.

Posted by: Paul Kobayashi at May 4, 2005 10:25 PM

I was at SDSU when this disaster occurred. It was early, but hot from the Santa Ana; my friends and I gathered after our first classes and started walking toward Monty's Den when we heard the boom! There was an immediate plume of smoke, and my initial thought was that either the Navy or Lindbergh Field personnel had set a practice explosion to train crews how to extinguish it.

As my friends and I continued to walk, the TVs in the student lounge were all turned to Channel 39. Apparently, a crew sent to film a "fluff" piece caught the entire event in progress. We stood in stunned silence as the reality crept up on us.

As soon as we'd gathered our wits--and being members of a service fraternity--we set out to find out where and how we could help. We were assigned the task of accepting donations of food, blankets, etc. for the survivors. We didn't know at that point that there were none...

Posted by: Susan Reed at May 20, 2005 12:29 AM

I just watched a special on the Sioux City plane crash and all the memories of Flight 182 came rushing back.

I was at Hoover High when it happened and was on my way back to class from the restroom, when I heard the impact. I looked up and thought I saw the tail section falling from the plane. It wasn't till later that I learned it was another plane. I just stood in silence, watching the plane make the turn. Not knowing the pilot was trying to aim for the 805 freeway.

When school let out early, I went home worried, my grandmother lived in the area of the crash. Hours passed without any answers (we weren't allowed into the area and phone service was gone), we finally got word from the fire department that she was fine. We could breathe again!
She was one street away. The neighbors home behind her had been hit by debris. She was shook up but fine. She was lucky enough not to have seen anything. She was lead out of the area, shielded by rescuers.
Somethings you never forget, they just resurface from time to time and when they do, you remember every little detail, where you were, what you were doing and the feelings you had, all come back.

Posted by: C. F. at June 16, 2005 01:34 PM