Air Crashes

by Tammy Dunn [ Reporter for the Leisure World News] 1982

Two airplane crashes have killed more than 30 Leisure World residents since 1967. At neither time were any of those people in the air. Both accidents occurred on foggy, misty days. The cause was mechanical malfunction in one case, miscommunication in the other.

The first air disaster was at home in Leisure World on January 22, 1967. That gray Sunday morning had been plagued by the bothersome rains that mark Southern California winters. It was sometime around noon that the tragedy occurred. Two pilots, attached to Bennett Field in Long Island, were flying to the Marine Corps Air Station at El Toro, just five miles from Leisure World, when the crash occurred.

Reports said that the radio in one of the planes went dead and the pilot in the other plane was trying to lead the one without communications devices to the air strip.
Accounts from witnesses would bear out the theory that the planes were flying wingtip-to-wingtip when they apparently collided, spewing fire and metal into the Rossmoor Leisure World Gate I area and striking Buildings 272 and 281 on Avenida Sevilla. Leisure World residents Leon Lauderbach of 272 Ayenida Sevilla, Harold and Margaret Berman of 272-B Avenida Sevilla, and H.H. Kenyon of 281-D Avenida Carmel perished.

Captain James H. Powell of Milford, N.J., parachuted nearly 400 feet to the ground only to have his chute snag on the building next to 272 Avenida Sevilla. The winds caught the chute’s folds, whipping the pilot about, and smashing his head into the structure. Captain Powell was flown by marine helicopter to Camp Pendleton Hospital, where he died later that day. The other pilot, Captain Frank Gambelli of Boonton, N.J., landed in the mud about 100 feet outside the community. He was treated and later released from the hospital at the El Toro Marine base.

In the moments following the devastating collision, the dying pilot was concerned about those he might have hurt or killed. Captain Powell is said to have asked Gary White, a tour bus driver for Leisure World who was one of the first on the scene, “Did I clear the building? Did I miss the houses?” He had not. Of the two buildings, both of which were two-story, eight unit manors, just one wall was left standing—that at 281 Avenida Sevilla.
Yet in all the destruction, which Rossmoor Corporation quickly rebuilt so that today one would not know that an engine of one of the planes is buried in the ground near 272 Avenida Sevilla, rescue workers from the Marine base, firefighters and residents responded quickly to curb the damage.

Immediately after the crash, witnesses said residents poured out of their manors and began helping their neighbors. The blaze was under control in an hour and a half. While the loss of one life is one too many, quick action and assistance intercepted the greater potential of increased loss of life.

  • Mrs. Anita M. Brown was found by Leisure World residents William Van Dyke and Henry Hefele in her manor at 281 Sevilla. She was lying on the kitchen floor, nearly unconscious. Aided by others, they tore a door from its hinges and used it as a stretcher to get her out of the burning building.
  • F.E. Payne Jr. was in the Methodist Church when he heard the thud of the planes colliding. He looked outside and saw smoke and flame, then ran to the scene.
    He saw an injured man in a burning building and ran to remove him from the hazard.
  • The Rev. Otto E. Sporrer, who had just completed blessings at St. Nicholas Catholic Church and who had been trained as a Navy chaplain, stepped to the aid of fire fighters and with his cassock soaked, gave assistance.

Days later, Leisure World Administrator Robert L. Price would comment in the Thursday, January 26th edition of the Leisure World News: “All in all, what impressed us the most during this period was that there was no panic, nor thought of panic…There was a solid feeling of moral strength in all those who were helping and those who were watching, who could not help but have contributed to the effective emergency work which was being done.”

The second air disaster was on March 27, 1977 in the far away Canary Islands.
Ten years and two months later, another air disaster, this one also affecting Leisure Worlders on the ground, would claim the lives of more than 600 people, 27 of whom were from the Laguna Hills retirement community.

The small runway at Los Rodeos on the Island of Santa Cruz de Tenerife in the Canary Islands was not the usual stopping place for international travelers. But in March, 1977, rioting and terrorists bomb threats had forced rerouting of planes from Las Palmas airport to Tenerife, 40 miles away. The 637 people aboard the Pan Am jet were headed for a 12 day Mediterranean Highlights cruise on the Golden Odyssey line, which was to leave from Las Palmas on Grand Canary Island.

Thirty-seven of the people on that plane were from Leisure World. Ten came home.
The Pan Am Boeing 747 was taxiing down the runway when it became involved in one of, if not the most, devastating accidents in aviation history. Because of miscommunication or disregard for flight instructions, a Dutch KLM jumbo jet came face-to-face with the American plane. The Pan Am pilot swerved to the left, steering off the runway and on to plowed ground. Still in danger of collision, the Dutch jet, with 248 people on board, tried to leap the Pan Am plane, scraping its landing gear over the top of the American plane, igniting both into an instant inferno. All the KLM passengers died, as did 570 of the people on the Pan Am plane. Five years after the accident, many of the 10 Leisure Worlders who survived, spoke freely about the accident that caught worldwide attention.

Mrs. Floy Heck, who was traveling with her  husband, Paul, said right after the Dutch plane hit the Pan Am jet, “many people were like wax figures.” She said they did not move. And like the plane crash in Leisure World’s Gate 1 area 10 years before, Mrs. Heck said there was no panic, no emotion, “just numbness.” In fact, she too was stricken motionless. “I would have burned to death if it wasn’t for my husband saying, “Honey, let’s get out of here,” she remembered.

The Hecks pushed burning debris aside and made their way to exits. They were separated after the fall to the ground, and it was several hours before she and her husband were able to speak to each other and be assured the other was safe. Mrs. Heck said the disaster was a turning point in her life, for it brought her and her husband closer to God. As she lay on the ground unable to walk, she cried, “Jesus, help me!” she said, and it is to the Lord she and Mr. Heck spent much of the last five years giving thanks to for sparing their lives in the twisted, burning rubble of the airplane. Mr. Heck died in August, 1981, but Mrs. Heck continues witnessing for the Lord.

For Lura and Herbert Waldrip, time virtually stood still in the seconds following the thud of planes colliding. Asked later by an Aviation Administration official how long it took him to get out of the plane, Mr. Waldrip said, “about five or six minutes.” The official, however, said all survivors were out of the plane in 90 seconds.

Grace and Byron Ellerbrock said that while they can recall the accident vividly, it is not something distasteful or fearful. As was the case with other Leisure World survivors, neither Ellerbrock has been tormented by nightmares. Mr. Ellerbrock has an optimistic outlook on life and a strong wit, apparent to those who meet him only briefly. He said when people would ask him after the accident if he was now afraid of flying, his favorite flip answer, “I was never hurt flying, just jumping off the wings” of airplanes. Indeed, many of those who survived received injuries when they jumped to the ground. In fact, Mr. Ellerbrock told a Pan Am official visiting him in the hospital after the crash that there was a serious defect in the 747. The official asked, “What is it?” And Ellerbrock replied, “The wings are too high.”

Those who survived the collision were Mario Tyzbir, Byron and Grace Ellerbrock, Floy and Paul Heck, “Mac” and Grace McGowan, Lura and Herbert Waldrip and Jean Brown, all from Leisure World. Of those 67 who survived the accident, 10 were from Leisure World.
Those from Laguna Hills who did not survive will long be remembered by those who knew them. The dead are: Mable Brassfield, Lloyd Chatterton, Helen Chatterten, Myra Cochran, William Combs, Leone Combs, Sherman Ellsworth, Marian Ellsworth, Martin Fisher, Raymond Halldorson, Helen Halldorson, Jean Houston, Frank Kase, Gwendolyn Kase, Karl Larson, Lorraine Larson, Benjamin Malin, Helen Peters, Elizabeth Reining, Ethel Selbo, Francis Simmons, Kathryn Simmons, Florence Sparr, Irene Tyzbir, Helen Vernon, Charles Ziebell, and Fern Ziebell.

Edited 12/02/2014