VIDEO: Cerritos Optimist Club Among Those Who Stepped Up Following 1986 Tragedy

When disaster struck Cerritos on Aug. 31, 1986 there were many heroes -- Cerritos Optimist Club members were some of the most active when it came to helping the community get back on its feet.

As the gathered for their usual 7 a.m. early bird breakfast meeting last Thursday at the , many of the members found it hard to believe that 25 years had passed since one of the worst air disaster in California history and certainly, the worst disaster to ever hit Cerritos.

On Aug. 31, 1986, the city was faced with a horrific tragedy when Aeroméxico Flight 498 flying into LAX, and a privately operated single-engine Piper Cherokee Archer II aircraft collided above the city, then crashed below, killing all aboard the two planes and 15 others on the ground.  

After News of Crash Spreads, Optimist Club Members Jump Into Action

Last year’s Optimist Club president Rick Renaker, a math teacher at School and Optimist Club member at the time, was driving home from the mall that Sunday when he and his wife noticed an enormous black cloud of smoke overhead.

“We both thought that it might be an 18-wheeler carrying some fuel that had wrecked on the freeway,” he said.

As Renaker and his wife got home it became apparent to them that this was no freeway crash. At the time, he and his family lived in the neighborhood on the opposite side of Carmenita Road, where the wreckage was centered at Holmes Avenue and Reva Circle. While at home, he got the call from the Optimist Club informing him what had just happened. The club immediately gathered about 25 members to help out at the command center and temporary shelter set up at the  gymnasium.

At the same time Optimist Club member and future city mayor, Sherman Kappe, had just returned from a trip to the beach when got the phone call for help.

“At the time ,” said Kappe. “It happened the Sunday before Labor Day so a lot of the members were out of town, but the members that remained all helped in whatever (way) they could ... some even spending the night at the gym at Cerritos High School.”

is still an Optimist member, and currently represents the Fourth District on the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors.

Helping the Victims and Their Families

In the hours and days following the crash, residents in the neighborhood surrounding the crash site were evacuated to the Cerritos High gym, and surrounding neighborhoods were locked down mainly to prevent residents and other on lookers from crowding the area and clogging rescue and relief efforts that were in place by local authorities.

The gym was filled with mostly residents who were evacuated as a precautionary measure, while others had sustained damage to their homes. But there were some dealing with the death of family and friends. And everywhere you looked, Optimist Club members were there assisting with crowd control and distributing supplies to those that were displaced. It was a chaotic scene as many residents franticly tried to figure out what had happened, with many wondering "are my family and friends OK?" and "what do I do now?"

“I felt like slugging this reporter that wanted to interview this person that had just lost someone in the crash,” said Renake. “He was just being too pushy, this person was in no condition to talk and the reporter wouldn’t let it go. We did anything we were asked to that day. It was our duty.”

Current Optimist Club member George Dominguez was an elementary school principal at the time and recounts horror stories about some of his friends and neighbors. In one account, a local fireman responding to the call in a weird twist of fate actually went into his own sister’s home fearing the worst. He found body parts around the house, and thought his sister was dead. His sister later returned from Santa Barbara from a day trip, she was one of the lucky ones. However, there were many stories like this with tragic endings.

During that summer day, some families were literally torn apart. According to Kappe, such was the case for his friends the McIllwains. Dennis McIllwain had gone out to run some errands that morning while his wife Linda stayed home. When he returned, Dennis found himself unable to gain access to his home, but even worse, his wife was missing. His fears were later confirmed -- Linda was one of the 15 fatalities on the ground, and his house was also destroyed.

“It took a long time for the community to rebuild,” said Kappe. “We helped out with various fundraising in the coming months; we raised money and helped the community in any way possible.”

It took about two to three years for the affected neighborhood to rebuild and look like nothing happened, but for some, the emotional damage took even longer to repair.

“I didn’t even go over to that side of the neighborhood until they rebuilt it,” said Renake. “It was just too much for me. I didn’t want to see any of the devastation up close. I just couldn’t handle it. It’s something you can never forget.”

Moving Forward But Never Forgetting the Past

Part of the creed of the Optimist Club is, “To be so strong that nothing can disturb your peace of mind,” and “To look at the sunny side of everything and make your optimism come true.”

But on that day 25 years ago, it was difficult for the club's members and the community to not feel shaken, and even tougher to look at the bright side when there was so much despair.

Yet the community and the Optimist Club pushed through together. And 25 years later, both are thriving and ready to meet new challenges.

“God forbid something like this would happen again, but if it did, we would help out our community in any way possible,” said Kappe.

City Invites Community to Attend 25th Anniversary Remembrance

The community is invited to attend the Cerritos Air Disaster 25th Anniversary Remembrance at 11:30 a.m. on Wednesday, August 31. The ceremony will be held at the Cerritos Air Disaster Memorial in the Cerritos Sculpture Garden which is located in the Civic Center.

The memorial will be a respectful gathering held in memory of the victims of the Aug. 31, 1986 mid-air collision. The remembrance will include a brief formal ceremony with the Cerritos City Council; a reading of the victims' names; a prayer for the victims and their loved ones; and a moment of silence.

For more information, please call the City's Community Participation Division at (562) 865-8101.


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