October 14, 1978 is a date forever etched upon my mind. I was seventeen at the time living in Yucca Valley, California. The Village People had just burst onto the music scene with their hit single “Y.M.C.A.” while the Bee Gees were topping the charts with “Stayin’ Alive.” That, of course, is not why this date stands out in my memory after thirty years.
This particular morning I was relaxing at home watching a major league playoff game on television when a loud racket outside of the window caught my attention. The noise resembled the boom of a car slamming into a metal dumpster accompanied by the shattering of glass. Curiosity got the best of me. I pulled myself out of the sofa and peeled back the curtains for a quick look. I had to blink several times as my eyes adjusted to the harsh daylight.
Moving in slow motion, puzzled by what I was witnessing, the reality took several seconds to register in my brain. An airplane had just crash landed outside of my apartment building. Not a big plane, mind you. I’m sure that would have made much more noise. This was a 25′ long, fixed wing, single-engine prop plane with four seats; a Rockwell Commander 112A as I later discovered.
The plane had slammed into a parked truck with such force it propelled the truck into the wall, the front door, and the window of the apartment building directly across the narrow street from where I lived. My heart raced as I ran to the phone to call 911. I’m sure my voice was shaking as I blurted, “An airplane just crashed into the house next door!”
The emergency operator sounded skeptical at first. I’m sure she must have thought this was nothing more than a prank call from some teenager with nothing better to do on the weekend. I say that in part because I heard no other calls on her side of the line. But, as I answered her questions and filled in a few more details, I could hear a sudden chorus of phones erupting in the background.
Evidently, the neighbors were now reporting in.
Having informed the authorities, I sprinted out the front door to see if I could help those trapped inside the crumpled plane. The urgency of my task became clear as I smelled, then saw, fuel spilled everywhere as if it had rained. I knew I had to act fast. How fast was anybody’s guess. It’s not like I had any experience in such matters.
Upon reaching the plane, myself and another man from the apartment complex yanked the door closest to me and were confronted with a gruesome scene. The 50-year-old pilot had been decapitated by the impact with the truck. When the plane collided with the truck, the truck became airborne, leaping onto the hood of the plane and then slammed into the windshield. Both pilot and passenger in the adjacent front seat never had a chance.
We managed to pull the first passenger from the back seat and helped him to safety. I hurried back to the plane and extracted the other young man from the far side of the back seats. Placing him on the ground, I turned to see if there was anything else I could do. That’s when the plane exploded. Standing just 30 feet away, the force of the blast knocked me onto my backside.
Within moments, a crowd of bystanders assembled. By the time the fire, police, and rescue vehicles arrived, the crowd had swelled to several hundred. On their heels, a fleet of media-types descended onto the scene like a swarm of ants at a picnic looking for the juiciest morsels. Medics cared for the injured passengers while the press pressed the crowd for eyewitness accounts.
I found it odd that the media ignored my viewpoint. To them I was just a 17-year-old kid–even though I was the first person on the scene and had pulled two survivors from the wreckage. What could I know, right? Even the FAA didn’t seem to care. Sure, they asked a question or two, but I got the feeling that my words weren’t of interest to them.
Years later, just out of curiosity, I dug around and found that the pilot was a brilliant man, a neurosurgeon whose work had been published in a leading journal of the American Heart Association. Even so, this very smart man made two fatal mistakes. First, his plane was 215 lbs. over the gross weight limits. On the surface that might not sound like much. But he had also selected the wrong runway relative to the existing wind conditions. In the end, his plane couldn’t overcome the laws of physics.
Even if I never fly a plane, there’s an important lesson to be learned from the way this man neglected these details. Simply put, I cannot ignore the way life works and expect to escape the consequences of neglect. That’s true of my marriage, my parenting, my relationships, my health, or my time alone with God. For whatever reason I may manufacture, to neglect these vital areas of life is to invite a personal disaster.