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What Happened Here delivers a wildly different cast of characters living on the same block in North Park, San Diego, site of the PSA Flight 182 crash in 1978. The crash is history, but its legacy seeps in the stories of the neighborhood’s inhabitants, bringing grief, anxiety, and rebellion to the surface and eventually assists in burning clean the lives of those who live in the shadow of disaster. Amidst the pathos of contemporary life, humor flits through these stories like the macaws that have taken to the trees of North Park. The birds ensure that there’s never a dull moment in the neighborhood, and their outrageous colors and noisome squawks serve as constant reminds of regrowth.
Why did Bonnie ZoBell write about THIS Crash?
PSA Flight 182 crashed in the North Park neighborhood of San Diego in 1978, and I live only a half a block away from where it occurred. I also lived in North Park 30 years ago when it happened, but in an apartment further away. When it happens that close to you, it definitely has a lasting effect, as anyone who’s been through a catastrophe of this magnitude can tell you. It’s personal. It’s abundantly clear forever afterward that something can fall out of the sky at any minute and take away people you love and care about; that part of your neighborhood can disappear in an instant.
We’ve become numb to devastations such as this one because we see them so regularly on the news. Movies exaggerate them even further. But when something like this happens right in your backyard, it’s a whole different story. And this was a major disaster not only in San Diego, but around the world. It was on the cover of Time magazine. At the time it was the biggest crash in the United States, and it’s still the biggest crash in California.
You have no idea of the impact it had here unless you’ve been through something similar. People still talk about where they were when it happened, like they do about when President Kennedy was assassinated. A filmmaker named David Fresina made a documentary about it called Return to Dwight and Nile even though he grew up in the state of Washington. He was so affected by the accident as a child he couldn’t forget the event and grew up with the desire to somehow illustrate what happened and its meaning to people.
On January 25, 1978, at 9:00 a.m., Santa Ana winds had overtaken Southern California. Everyone’s skin and sinuses and thoughts were dried out and crackling and we were already sweating. I was walking out the door of my upstairs apartment and looked straight ahead. Massive black smoke was swelling densely into the sky only a mile away from me. It was like we’d been bombed. People on the street, a mother with her baby carriage, were hit and killed instantly. Twenty-two homes were destroyed. Body parts continued to be found weeks later. Refrigerated trucks where these parts were stowed, and air that made our eyes water, stayed with us far too long.
The reason I decided to write about it now, thirty-five years later, instead of setting the story at the time of the crash, is because I bought a house only feet from the site in 2000, and I’m struck by how much of a presence the crash still has. My house wasn’t hit, but debris landed all over my property and that of my immediate neighbors. A woman’s decapitated body, having gone through the roof, was found in the bedroom of the house next door. Also, I have a character in my collection—which takes place in the 21st century—who’s bipolar, and since the 30th anniversary of the crash really was coming up in my neighborhood when I wrote that novella, I started to see a parallel between my character’s descent into a horrible black hole and the imagery we were constantly reminded of as the anniversary of the jet racing toward got closer. People in North Park still talk about the souls of those who died being with us in our homes.
I do feel that we can still sense beings with us who’ve passed on from the physical world. Just because their bodies have died doesn’t mean everything about them has. There are a lot of people in my neighborhood who feel they can sense the souls of the victims. I haven’t heard of anyone having a mean ghost kicking around. My next-door neighbor tells me that soon after he moved into his house, he heard the story from the people who lived on either side of him about the woman who had crashed through his ceiling and was found decapitated. Only a few weeks later he had a sense of the woman’s presence telling him she was happy where she was. He feels his house picked him and that he’s been welcomed. He says even if he’d known that beforehand, he’d still have purchased the house.
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Bonnie ZoBell’s chapbook, The Whack-Job Girls was released by Monkey Puzzle Press in March 2013. She has received an NEA fellowship in fiction, the Capricorn Novel Award, A PEN Syndicated Fiction Award, the Los Angeles Review nominated one of her stories for a Pushcart Award, a place on Wigleaf’s Top 50, and a story published by Storyglossia was named as a notable story in story South’s Million Writers Award. After receiving an MFA from Columbia on fellowship, she has been teaching at San Diego Mesa College where she is a Creative Writing Coordinator. Currently she is Associate Editor for The Northville Review and Flash Fiction Chronicles