March 28, 2008

DMG's 1978 PSA Crash Story

Plane crash victims

'People on the floor are the lucky ones'

By David Matt Green
September 25, 1978
Southern Cross Assistant Editor

"The people here on the floor are the lucky ones," said Augustinian Father Tom Bonica. "It's their families who are going to feel the pain."

Father Bonica was standing in the gymnasium of St. Augustine High School in San Diego. Three days earlier he had stood in the same building for a pep rally for the school's football team.

On this day, however, the gym was filled not with enthusiastic students, but with the remains of the victims of the crash between a Boeing 727 and a Cessna 172.

The gymnasium was now a morgue.

Earlier in the day, at a little after 9 a.m., Father Bonica had been one of the first people to reach the scene of the crash.

"I heard the explosion and saw the smoke," Father Bonica said. "I gave general absolution from where I was, then got into a car and drove six or seven blocks to the site of the crash.

"The police were already there. At first they weren't going to let me through, then one officer came over and said, 'If I were one of those people, I would want you there with me, Father.'

"The officer got me into the area, and I anointed about 50 bodies," Father Bonica said. "I've never been involved in anything like this before, and I hope I never go through anything like it again. It was gruesome."

Another Augustinian actually saw the mid-air collision.

"I was standing outside talking to the principal and the vice principal," said Father Jim Clifford. "I happened to look up and I saw the jet and a small plane near it. I said, 'They're too close!' just as the jet started to bank slightly.

"Then the small plane hit the wing of the jet and there was an explosion," Father Clifford continued. "The jet's wing burst into flames and the jet turned right toward the school.

"It looked like it was going to hit us, so I started yelling, 'Run! Run!' But it went down about six blocks from here. It was a sight I'll never forget."

Father Clifford went to the crash site with Father Bonica and two other Augustinians, Fathers John Ranallo and Anthony Wasko, the St. Augustine principal.

A number of students also hurried to the area, according to Bill O'Shaunghnessy, a lay teacher at St. Augustine who also went to the site.

"I saw about a dozen of our kids over there," O'Shaunghnessy said. "They were running up into the flames with little garden hoses, showing no regard for their own lives. I had to keep chasing them back to where they would be safe."

When the teachers and students had done as much as they could, they returned to the school, where more than 550 shocked students gathered with the 30 faculty members to offer a mass for the victims.

Then the students were dismissed and police officers, military personnel and medical people from throughout the area began to replace them on the campus, which had been chosen as the site of the police department's command post.

The gymnasium was quickly set up as a first aid station and as a temporary morgue. It soon became obvious, however, that the first aid people would devote most of their efforts to helping police and firemen stricken by the more than 100 degree heat at the scene.

None of the 136 people on the plane had survived the crash.

Most of the people at St. Augustine spent the morning waiting, while at the crash site workers sifted through the wreckage for what remained of the victims.

Nothing could be moved until everything was catalogued as to its location at the site, a necessary step for the investigation which always follows an air-crash.

Early in the afternoon workers from the coroner's department finally began moving the remains, in large yellow or white zippered bags, over to St. Augustine.

As each bag was carried into the gymnasium, either Father Bonica or Father Ranallo went over and stood along side as a doctor opened the bag. Then the priest anointed the remains.

Other priests and lay teachers helped maintain order in the gym, or stood to the side talking to reporters who had begun to arrive at the school from all over the state.

The members of the media were confined to a small area in one corner of the room, fenced off from the main area by a row of tables.

Some of the media people just sat at the tables and stared, dazed out of their professional non-involvement by the colossal feeling of helplessness that filled the gymnasium.

By 5 p.m. more than 100 bags lay in neat rows on the floor, beneath a basketball backboard and about two dozen banners commemorating athletic victories, many of which occured in this very building.

People began to carry the bags out a side door and up into refrigerated trucks, where they would be stored until other arrangements could be made.

But the workers at the crash site were nowhere near finished removing the remains of the victims from the wreckage, and the total number of bags would eventually reach 250.

Thus far the coroner's office has placed the number of deaths at 144, the combined total of victims who were either in the 727 or the Cessna, or were killed on the ground when the jet hit.

That figure could have been much higher, according to Father Bonica.

"There are two schools within a few blocks of where the plane hit," Father Bonica said. "If they had come down over at McKinley grade school or here at St. Augustine, there could easily have been over 600 deaths.

"I can see God's hand in that," Father Bonica said. "I think he kept it away from the schools."

Posted at 4:30 AM in In Memoriam, San Diego