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Cerritos Air Disaster Marked by Memorial Ceremony at Sculpture Garden

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A mother comforts her young child at the memorial.

By Tammye McDuff

At 11:56am, this past Wednesday, bells chimed out three times in remembrance of the Cerritos Air Disaster.

On August 31, 1986 a Piper Cherokee Archer II plane collided with Aeromexico DC-9 midair above Cerritos, resulting in a tragedy that claimed 82 lives, destroyed eleven homes and severely damaged seven other structures. Those who perished included 15 on the ground, 64 on the Aeromexico flight and three on the smaller aircraft. The tragedy became known as the Cerritos Air Disaster and prompted the implementation of safer procedures for airport approaches and departures.

Supervisor Don Knabe was Mayor of Cerritos at the time, “You know when you become Mayor, you are handed a little booklet on disaster preparedness, but nowhere does it tell you what to do when a DC-9 crashes in your city. It’s hard to believe, but today marks the 30th anniversary of the Cerritos Air Crash.” Knabe states, “On a cloudless afternoon in 1986, a beautiful day like today, a small airplane collided with an Aeromexico DC-9 in the skies above Cerritos. Death and destruction rained down on our city, devastating this community.”

Knabe visited the crash site a few days ago, “It was my first visit to the neighborhood at Carmenita Road and 183rd street in many years.” Some of the neighbors who survived the air crash on the ground still lived there. Others decided the memories were too painful to stay. “As I turned the corner onto Holmes Avenue, my heart skipped a beat, and it was suddenly hard to breathe as a rush of raw emotions came roaring back. I could smell the burning jet fuel again. I could see the rubble and remains of exploded houses again. I could feel the immense loss of our friends and neighbors and the feeling of hopelessness again.”

Many special speakers were present today including Adriana Ocejo, Director of Culture, from the Township of Loreto, Mexico and Luis Valdez, son of Aeromexico pilot Captain Arturo Valdez.

There was some good that came from that day. Air traffic monitoring changed forever with new transponders that allow aircraft of all sizes to talk to each other, ensuring a similar air disaster would not happen again. Mental health teams now rapidly deploy to disaster areas to begin immediate crisis counseling for victims, and first responders who may suffer post-traumatic stress from their experiences. Responsibility for the collision was shared by the pilot of the smaller plane and the Federal Aviation Administration.

The FAA has since enforced a series of key changes, requiring jetliners to install automatic crash-avoidance systems; mandating the use of transponders operating within certain areas; and consolidating approach spaces for more organized airspace management.

Cerritos came together that day in unity. The community and City of Cerritos established a fund for victims’ families. Shelters were set up for people who lost their homes, residents opened up their homes and made sure everyone had a place to go where they could sleep, eat and mourn. “I’ll never forget that overwhelming sense of community,” states Knabe.

Cerritos City Councilmembers who led the community during this painful time of healing included Mayor Don Knabe, Mayor Pro Tem Daniel Wong, Councilmember Ann Joynt, Councilmember Diana Needham and Councilmember Barry Rabbit.

There has not been another midair crash between a major commercial air carrier and a general-aviation aircraft, since the Cerritos Air Disaster. The number of midair crashes in U.S. airspace has reduced to single digit instances according to Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association.

The Aeromexico plane, flight 498 originated from Loreto, Mexico. Among the 64 people on the flight were 15 people from Mexico. Out of this tragedy a friendship and Sister City relationship was born between the Cerritos and Loreto communities and continue to thrive today.

The Cerritos Air Disaster 30th Anniversary Remembrance is held in memory of those who perished in the disaster and to provide comfort to those who lost loved ones in the tragedy.