Sunday, February 22, 2015

Fateful day changed Palm Desert coach’s perspective: Grumman American AA-5A, N9842U

“That’s when I just knew for sure I was going to die. When I saw glimpses of mountains and trees. I knew that wasn’t right. I thought to myself, ‘I’m going to die and I’m only 15.’ ”

That’s what Jim Serven, the current Palm Desert High School basketball coach, said about the events of Feb. 12, 1978.

A 15-year-old Serven was asked by his neighbor, 17-year-old Randall Dowling, if he wanted to go for a plane ride. Dowling, an experienced certified pilot despite his young age, was taking two other teenage friends for a round-trip flight from El Monte to Apple Valley and they needed a fourth passenger to help balance the weight of the small plane, a 1976 Grumman American Cheetah.

“Actually, they asked my older brother first, but he couldn’t go,” Serven recalls. “They asked me and I said ‘Sure, sounds like fun.’ My mom didn’t want me to go, but my dad said it was OK.”

An hour later, the quartet of teens from just outside Los Angeles — Serven, Dowling and 19-year-old David Emma, all from Temple City, and Kathleen Taylor, a 17-year-old from West Covina — were preparing for takeoff from El Monte Airport.

They flew from El Monte to Apple Valley, about an hour flight, and had lunch at the Apple Valley Inn. A good time was had by all, and they loaded back into the plane for the return trip back to El Monte.

Serven said before they took off the second time, Dowling received a weather report warning that a storm was going to move into the area in about six or eight hours.

No problem. They’d be home in an hour.

But there were problems. And only Serven would ever make it home.

‘I’m not giving up, Kathy’

It was a fast-moving storm, and midway through their flight home, it hit. The small plane was enveloped by clouds. Serven, who was seated behind the pilot, said he couldn’t even see the wing outside that was two feet away from him, and the temperature dropped about 30 degrees.

“I definitely was starting to feel nervous, it was my first time ever in a plane, I didn’t even know if you could fly in a cloud, but the pilot wasn’t nervous. He said he’d flown in clouds before, so that calmed me a little,” Serven said.

But the calm went away quickly. Both with Serven and Dowling. The quick and unexpected drop in temperature led to some ice accumulation on the wing. This was something the pilot was not comfortable handling.

The plane went off the radar at Ontario Airport around 3 p.m., according to an L.A. Times article days later. Moments after that, the airport heard this exchange as Dowling tried to make contact.

Dowling: “I think we’re in trouble. We’re icing over and ...

A girl’s voice: “Don’t give up, don’t give up Randy! Hail Mary full of grace ...

Dowling: “I’m not giving up, Kathy! I’m not!”

And that was it. No more radio transmission.

The only person able to explain what happened next is Serven.

‘We hit a tree’

Serven knew the group was in trouble when he started to see glimpses of mountains through the clouds.

“I knew we weren’t high enough to get over those mountains, and it felt likely we were sort of circling in a ravine between mountains,” he said. “It was real chaotic in the cockpit and the pilot was freaking out a little bit, and the rest of us were grabbing onto our seats real tight.”

That’s when disaster finally struck.

“Next thing I know, we hit a tree,” Serven recalls. “The wing clips a big tree. We latch onto the tree and go straight down at that point. Went straight down to the ground.

“I remember being thrown around like when you’re at the beach and a wave is tossing you around like a rag doll. One weird thing, I don’t remember any pain. I just remember being thrown around.”

It was 3:30 p.m. The plane crashed nose first and the body was still sticking straight up perpendicular to the ground. Four teenagers in various states of consciousness were stuck in the wreckage of a small plane, stuck to a jagged tree stump, in a snowbank in the freezing cold, in a wilderness preserve near Cucamonga Peak just west of the Cajon Pass.

Serven said from that moment, all through the night and until the sun started to come up the next morning, he was mostly unconscious with only fleeting memories of conversations with the pilot and the girl.

“I’m not really sure if those conversations were real or hallucinations to be honest, but I think they were real, but I don’t really remember anything for sure until the next morning ... or what I was told later was the next morning,” he said.

He believes around 5 a.m., he woke up with a clear head for the first time. He was now really comprehending and seeing everything for the first time.

What he saw was horrifying. But the fact that he was awake gave him hope.

‘It was clear, he was dead’

Serven said the first thing he remembers seeing was his shoe. It was strange for two reasons. It was red and it was underneath and to the right of him in a position feet aren’t supposed to be.

He was sitting in an almost normal position except his seat had become detached and spun so that he was sitting where his back would normally go. He reached down to touch his jeans and confirmed what he suspected. His bone between the ankle and knee was broken and sticking out through his skin. His right hip was also out of joint. Not through the skin, but he could feel a knob on his side where it wasn’t before. His shoe had filled up with blood.

“Obviously I was horrified, but there was one weird feeling I had,” Serven said. “When we were in the air and I knew we were in trouble, I was sure we were going to die. Now that I was awake, though, I didn’t have that feeling anymore. I knew I was going to live. For some reason, I was confident about that even though I had no reason to be. Stuck in the freezing cold, bleeding, not being able to move and not even knowing if people are looking for us. But for some reason, I knew I wasn’t going to die.”

His co-passengers weren’t as lucky. Serven saw David Emma, who was in the front passenger seat.

“It was clear he was dead. He took the brunt of the crash and he was right where the jagged tree stump pierced the metal.”

Kathleen Taylor, whom Serven hadn’t met before that day, was in the back passenger seat next to Serven.

“Her head was tilted away from me, like looking out the window, of course the window wasn’t there anymore. I sort of was able to move my head and look around her. ... She had passed away, too.”

Serven said the pilot was sort of out of his seat and on the ground down where his feet would normally be down by the foot pedals. The first bit of good news, he could hear labored breathing coming from Dowling. He was unconscious but still alive.

So there Serven was. Trapped in this plane. His first instinct was to try to get out and get help somehow, but he quickly realized he couldn’t get far, and that staying near the plane was probably his best chance of survival. But he didn’t even really know if anyone was searching for them, or if they could find them even if they were.

“I remember thinking even if someone was looking for us, it would be hard to see us, because on top of all the bad luck, the plane was green and white, perfect camouflage,” he said.

The situation was bleak. But then he heard a glorious noise. The sound of an airplane.

‘Like you see in movies’

What Serven didn’t know is that planes are equipped with a transmitter that helps locate a downed plane. When the weather would allow, planes were canvasing the area trying to locate a blip from the transmitter. That was the plane that Serven heard. As it crisscrossed above.

“When I tell my students this story, I always tell them about how much joy I had when I would hear those planes, and then how frustrated I got when they flew over and went away,” Serven said. “They were looking for us, I figured, but every time the plane sound would go away, I was worried it would never come back.”

The plane finally pinpointed the location, and helicopters from the San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department battled the storm and tried to get to the location.

A helicopter dropped down close to the wreckage and tried to make contact with Serven via loudspeaker. Serven, still disoriented, indicated, if nothing else, that he was alive.

“I heard a helicopter hovering right above where we were,” he said. “They were trying to talk to me, but it was all blurry sounding. I didn’t know if it was real or not. I remember waving my arms, and then pointing to my leg and making sort of a breaking motion with my hands, like to tell them that I couldn’t move.”

Then, to Serven’s disbelief, the helicopter took off.

“I was like ‘NOOOOOO!’ Wait! Come back!’ ” Serven said. “Turns out the storm was so bad they couldn’t stay. But (about an hour later) they came back. They dropped a couple rescue guys down with me, and the helicopter took off and didn’t come back again for two hours.”

Serven said the first thing the rescue guys did after they made contact was build a fire. He said he was happy to have the human contact and be able to ask questions to get his bearings. Serven had no concept of time because every time he blacked out and came to, he didn’t know if a day or 15 minutes had passed.

“I remember I kept telling them I was starving, because I thought I might have been there for four or five or six days,” Serven said. “And they were like, ‘You’re not starving to death, you’ve only been out here one day.’ ”

When the storm broke, the helicopter returned.

“The two guys said ‘OK, it’s time to go.’ And they just grabbed me and starting dragging me over the bumpy terrain, my leg flopping around and I’m screaming in pain. They got me into the helicopter, sort of wrapped my legs together in a blanket to stabilize them and flew me to Loma Linda.

“We landed on the (hospital) roof like you see in movies and doctors and paramedics were running around me and shouting and rolling me all over the place all crazy.”

‘Mom! It’s Jimmy!’

The families of the four teens had gathered at the Rialto Airport to receive updates during the search-and-rescue mission.

Finally they received some positive news when they were told they were bringing a male survivor to the hospital. They were told the survivor had signaled to the helicopter that he was alive, so the logic was that it was the pilot who had survived.

The pilot’s parents — Serven’s neighbors — rushed to the hospital.

“As they were working on me, and all these different doctors doing different things, I finally saw faces I recognized,” Serven recalled. “It was the pilot’s parents. I was happy to see them, but when they saw me, they were disappointed and started crying. I didn’t get it at the time, but obviously I do now. They thought it was going to be their son.”

According to the L.A. Times article, Dowling died in the arms of the paramedics that were dropped down to help Serven, as they tried to give Dowling mouth-to-mouth resuscitation at the crash site.

Of course, word trickled back to the families back at the airport, and it was the Servens’ turn to race to the hospital.

The next face that didn’t belong to a doctor that Serven saw was his little brother Tom.

“At this point, I guess they knew, but when his face popped up and he shouted back, ‘Mom! It’s Jimmy!’ That was the best,” Serven said.

‘Worst pain ever’

Now comes the next chapter in the saga, the recovery. Serven, who was a talented basketball and baseball player in high school, had not only the fractured leg and hip issues, but even worse than both of those was frostbite.

The cold temperatures and the pooled blood around his right foot inside his shoe created in essence a blood ice cube around his foot. Amputation was discussed during his 14 days in intensive care.

“They set my leg and put my hip back into socket, but my body temperature was really dropping and my foot was black with frostbite like in that one Adam Sandler movie (”Mr. Deeds”),” Serven said. “They said I was getting gangrene in my feet and they were considering amputating my legs. They even had me prepped for that surgery, but they decided against it. Then they said, we saved your legs, but we have to amputate your feet. But then that never happened either. Thankfully.”

So Serven went home after about two weeks and remained bed- or couch-ridden there while he got healthy. He was home-schooled the rest of that semester. He still didn’t have much feeling in his feet.

After a few months, the frostbite wore off and feeling came back. It was the ultimate good news-bad news situation.

“You know how when you sleep on your arm or whatever and it’s numb and tingling for about 30 seconds and then goes away?” Serven said. “Well, my feet felt like that for about three months and then all of a sudden the circulation started to come back. It was the worst pain ever. Just like 1,000 knives stabbing your feet. It was way worse than all the other stuff I went through.”

That pain became manageable and, soon enough, Serven was up and active again. The doctors thought the pounding of playing basketball would be too much for his feet and legs, but they let him play baseball that next year as a junior. As a senior, he played baseball and basketball, and even played a little college baseball, too.

The only lasting physical effects are that one leg is a little shorter than the other and he has a noticeable indentation and scar below his right knee.

‘Reason I lived’

Serven, now 52, has a wife, Laura, and three children: Johnathan plays baseball at Long Beach State; Brian plays baseball at Arizona State; and 12-year-old Kristina is a budding softball and basketball player.

Serven was the girls’ basketball coach at Palm Desert High School from 1992 to 2004. After moving back to L.A. to be with family, Serven is back in the valley as the Palm Desert boys’ basketball coach and as a teacher at the Horizon/Summit continuation school.

He doesn’t like to talk about his survival story much, but he does like to tell his students at Horizon.

“I share it with my students because it’s a good lesson that there’s a lot of things in life and that you have to look at the bigger picture,” Serven said. “I teach high school sophomores, which is exactly what I was when the plane crash happened. Some of these kids have gone through tough times in their lives, too, and it’s nice to be able to at least in some way relate to them.”

Serven has never been and never will be on a small plane again. He will go on big commercial planes when necessary and feels some anxiety, but not enough to prevent him from flying.

When he retells the story, you can tell there are no nightmares or flashbacks or inner demons still wearing on him from that day.

When this time of year comes around — it was the day before Presidents Day that year — he thinks of all the parts of that day. This year, Serven, with some coaxing from his daughter, decided to tell his story to more than just his classroom.

“I know this sounds hokey, but meeting my wife, having my kids and being a teacher and helping these kids, some who have had tough lives, those are the reasons I think I lived,” Serven said. “Maybe it doesn’t sound hokey, I don’t know. I don’t want it to, but there has to be a reason I lived, some point to it. And I think that’s what it is.”

Story and comments:

 NTSB Identification: LAX78FA026
14 CFR Part 91 General Aviation
Aircraft: GRUM AMER AA-5A, registration: N9842U
 FILE    DATE          LOCATION          AIRCRAFT DATA       INJURIES       FLIGHT                        PILOT DATA
                                                               F  S M/N     PURPOSE
3-1824  78/2/12  NR.FONTANA,CA         GRUM AMER AA-5A     CR-  1  0  0  NONCOMMERCIAL             PRIVATE, AGE 17, 111
        TIME - 1530                    N9842U              PX-  2  1  0  PLEASURE/PERSONAL TRANSP  TOTAL HOURS, 14 IN TYPE,
                                       DAMAGE-SUBSTANTIAL  OT-  0  0  0                            NOT INSTRUMENT RATED.
          EL MONTE,CA                 EL MONTE,CA                  APPLE VALLEY,CA
        TYPE OF ACCIDENT                                         PHASE OF OPERATION
           COLLIDED WITH: TREES                                     IN FLIGHT: NORMAL CRUISE
           WEATHER - RAIN
           WEATHER - SNOW
        SKY CONDITION                                            CEILING AT ACCIDENT SITE
          OBSCURATION                                               0
          UNKNOWN/NOT REPORTED                                      RAIN, SNOW
          UNKNOWN/NOT REPORTED                                     IFR

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