Morgan M. Hurley | Uptown Assistant Editor
Local author renews interest in region’s preeminent tragedy
Not many who lived in San Diego on September 25, 1978 will ever forget the horrific events that took place early that blustery Santa Ana morning, when a Boeing 727 collided mid-air with a Cessna 172 Skylark and plummeted into North Park’s residential neighborhoods.
PSA Flight 182 was en route from Los Angeles to Lindbergh Field when the crash occurred, killing all 137 on board the two aircraft and seven more on the ground. The small plane fell to Polk Avenue near 32nd Street, three-quarters of a mile from where the jetliner bore a huge hole in the pavement near Nile and Dwight streets, destroying 22 homes and damaging many others.
It’s been 36 years since that fateful day; the neighborhood has long since been rebuilt, but all the memories and lore remain. A small memorial may finally be in the works as well.
North County native Bonnie ZoBell — who while on her way to classes at San Diego State in 1978 heard the crash and saw the large plume of smoke from her Texas Street apartment — now lives in the immediate vicinity of the crash site.
“I just love [North Park] because there are so many different kinds of people, so you don’t feel inhibited about being who you are,” she said. “It’s very eclectic. People are very accepting.”
On May 3, ZoBell released a novella with 10 accompanying stories, all tied together with the PSA tragedy featured as a looming backdrop.
Called “What Happened Here,” ZoBell said although the book’s eccentric characters are purely fictional, she did a great amount of research in and outside of the neighborhood she has called home the last 14 years, to flush out the events surrounding them.
Having taught fiction and English at Mesa College since 1984, ZoBell has been writing short stories and novellas for decades, and many of the characters in her new book first debuted in her previous works.
To help promote “What Happened Here,” ZoBell co-produced a short documentary called, “North Park Eclectic,” with Melanie Peters of Melanie Peters Productions.
Peters said she and ZoBell decided to make the film after realizing how North Park’s own strong personality was not only a character in the book itself, but also an impetus for its character development, and that many outside of San Diego may be unfamiliar with the neighborhood.
“We chose people that had different opinions and history with North Park, and also had some experience with the horrible plane crash in 1978,” Peters said. “I have tried to paint a moving picture of what Bonnie’s inspiration was for the collection.
“We were also fortunate enough to be given several previously unreleased photos of the scene on the ground the day of the crash,” she said. “The grainy sepia-tone photos play out like a villain in the short film, but one that ends up uniting a neighborhood.”
The mini-documentary will make its debut this weekend as part of a multi-media author event called “The Red Bird Tour” held at Rebecca’s Coffeehouse in South Park. ZoBell will be on hand to read from “What Happened Here,” and three other local authors will also be present with their new books: James Claffey, Heather Fowler, and Julia Escoria. The other authors’ works are not related to the PSA crash.
Along with some of ZoBell’s neighbors, one of the themes of “North Park Eclectic” is the absence of a memorial where the crash occurred. Though there are two other memorials to the crash — one at the North Park Library a mile away and another at the Air & Space Museum in Balboa Park — Myra Pelowski, a Del Mar resident who lost her brother in the crash, has begun a steady push to install a memorial on a small traffic island at the intersection of Boundary, Felton and Dwight streets. ZoBell said opinions are “vehement” on both sides.
“I’m very much on Myra’s side,” she said. “A little memorial is not going to change anything and there are people in the neighborhood who think that suddenly all this traffic is going to come by.”
While ZoBell admits she’s been approached by more than a few curious folk over the years, it doesn’t bother her.
“I am an avid gardener and people come by in the summer when I tend to be out there more and not that unoften ask me about where the sight is,” she said. “But there are people who moved in recently who say they would not have bought their houses. There is plenty of room for the memorial. I am one house away and I think it should be there.”
“The Red Bird Tour” with readings from ZoBell, Claffey, Fowler and Escoria and the premiere of “North Park Eclectic,” will take place Saturday, May 10 at 4 p.m. at Rebecca’s Coffeehouse located at 3015 Juniper St. in South Park. For more information, visit bonniezobel.com/media/readings. Find more info about the memorial on its Facebook.