Female flight controller's worst nightmare came true in L.A. plane collision

February 10, 1991|By Mark A. Steinand Eric Malnic | Mark A. Steinand Eric Malnic,Los Angeles Times

LOS ANGELES -- Trembling in shock and smoking a cigarette, Robin Lee Wascher sat in a Los Angeles airport control tower office after guiding two airliners onto the same runway and seeing them collide in a ball of flame.

"I'm sorry. I'm sorry," the 38-year-old ground controller murmured over and over, tears spilling fitfully from her brown eyes.

Outside, firefighters were pumping flame-smothering foam into the smoldering wreck of a USAir Boeing 737 and pulling out victims. The crash on Friday a week ago claimed 34 lives -- all 12 people on a SkyWest Metroliner and 22 of the 89 aboard the larger USAir jet.

But in the minutes immediately following the accident, all Ms. Wascher knew was that there had been a collision -- and a fiery

explosion. The eight-year veteran controller was so anguished over the safety of the passengers that no one could tell her that a third of them had died in the wreckage.

This picture of grief and remorse was painted by another Los Angeles airport controller, one of many of the small brown-haired woman's colleagues who spent hours after the accident counseling the controller and spent days hiding her in hotels to protect her from publicity.

"To say that she's remorseful is probably redundant," said the colleague, who spoke on condition of anonymity. "How would you feel if your worst nightmare had come true? An accident like that is our worst nightmare. . . . We all think about it. It's what we're trained not to do."

The other controllers on duty that Friday night stayed in the 12-story tower and finished their regular shifts as Federal Aviation Administration investigators coursed through the building, gathering evidence.

Ms. Wascher was taken to an office one floor below her tower station immediately after the crash. Then, although only halfway through her swing shift, she was escorted home by other off-duty controllers. They spent the night comforting her.

The next day, as news spread that controller error was a factor in the disaster, Ms. Wascher was moved by friends into a hotel just south of the airport. Again, fellow controllers stayed with her.

The FAA provided her with a private mental health counselor, and she also talked with a controller who had been involved with another aircraft disaster and was able eventually to return to work.

"They talked with her about the incident, helped her deal with it," the colleague said. "I was impressed with Robin. If it had happened to me, I don't know that I could have handled it as well. . . . She is a very strong person."

Being interviewed for three hours Wednesday by National Transportation Safety Board officials was especially tough for Ms. Wascher, the colleague said.

"It was not necessarily an intimidating environment, but a very sterile environment," the colleague said. "They [NTSB investigators] have been exemplary in this. Bent over backwards to make her as comfortable as possible. . . . Obviously they had to talk to her. But they told her that if there was anybody she wasn't comfortable with, that she didn't want in the room, they would go."

In that interview, Ms. Wascher said that she had confused the SkyWest plane with a similar commuter plane that was behind a larger plane on a taxiway. Because another controller misplaced some paperwork, she said, she was unaware that the plane she saw on the taxiway was a Wings West craft -- and not the SkyWest commuter.

As a result, she said, she cleared the USAir jet to land. It rear-ended the smaller craft, flattening it and dragging it in flames into the side of an abandoned fire station.

"This incident, this accident, could have happened to anybody, any of us," said Ms. Wascher's colleague. "We're all put in the position of having to run airplanes as tightly as we can."

It was only "bad luck" that the accident occurred this time to this controller, he said.

Ms. Wascher, described by friends as confident and strong, has even started to allow herself to start thinking about what she will do after public hearings on the accident are held in three months.

"She's made indications that she wants to come back," the other controller said. "She's on administrative leave. Obviously, she's got some things she needs to work through. She needs some rest."

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